Childhood Cancer Awareness Month: A Colorado family’s cancer journey | Health

On the morning of Halloween 2020, 4-year-old Piper Lardes was beaming. It was her favorite holiday, and her long-planned witch costume, complete with green face paint and plastic fingers, was waiting for her at home. The only thing standing between Piper and a day of trick-or-treating was a quick doctor’s appointment. At least that’s what she thought.

However, Piper would not come home from the hospital that day. Or the day after. Instead, the doctor’s appointment brought news that would change Piper and her family’s lives forever. That day Piper was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ll never forget that moment,” said Bailey Lardes, Piper’s mother. “You can never imagine that this will be your path. It’s the worst-case scenario. You think, that can’t be what’s happening to our kid.”

In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the Lardes family has decided to share Piper’s cancer journey with The Denver Gazette to raise awareness and promote funding and research into childhood cancer.

About two months before Piper’s diagnosis, she developed pain in her right arm. She would wake up in the middle of the night screaming in pain, although X-rays and blood tests couldn’t find anything wrong. Some doctors suggested it was growing pains or nightmares, but after Piper’s arm began to twitch and lose function, a doctor discovered a mass in her neck.

Photo courtesy of the Lardes family.

The MRI piper received on Halloween confirmed that the mass was a golf ball-sized tumor that pressed into her spinal cord, causing the arm pain. Later, the cancer was identified as advanced Ewing sarcoma, an extremely rare cancer that usually occurs in and around the bones.

Piper was immediately admitted to the hospital where she stayed for the next 10 days. During this time, she lost function in both arms, underwent numerous tests, and was put under anesthesia three times in 48 hours. All the while, Piper’s parents and healthcare team worked to choose a treatment plan for the cancer.

“It was a complete whirlwind,” said Doug Lardes, Piper’s father. “It took quite a few days to even fathom that it was happening. You just go through the motions and do everything you can and go by sheer instinct.”

Doug, Bailey and the healthcare team decided on 14 twice-weekly chemotherapy treatments, a combination of five different drugs and 31 days of radiation. For the next eight months, Piper and her parents spent most of their days in the hospital, whether it was getting treatment, checking lab results, or going to the emergency room every time Piper developed a fever.

Piper’s long blond hair soon fell out, as did her eyebrows and eyelashes. Her small body accumulated scars from treatments and she developed a fear of stickers and band-aids because they reminded her of the sticker on her gate that hurt when doctors took it off.

Photo courtesy of the Lardes family.

To get through this, Piper took it upon himself to find out as much as possible about what was going on with her. She would ask for the name and title of every person in her hospital room, as well as what each drug used on her was and what it was doing.

One night, as Piper and Doug went to the emergency room, a nurse asked Doug what medication the emergency room had given Piper during her last visit. After Doug responded, “It started with a ‘c,'” Piper confidently exclaimed, “Cefepime.”

“Funny enough, before all this, when Piper was 2 years old, she wanted to be a doctor,” Bailey said. Now she wants to be a cancer doctor. She says, ‘Well, I have to learn all this before I become a doctor.’”

Piper’s other coping mechanisms include practicing MRIs and accessing ports on her baby dolls, and using breathing exercises and counting to get through pain. And no matter how hard it got, she always bounced back quickly and rarely complained, Bailey said.

A few days a month when Piper was feeling well, she would return to kindergarten and pull her IV bags around the classroom on a rolling pole. For her fifth birthday, Piper’s parents decorated her hospital room with a princess theme and her care team donned tutus and tiaras. The hospital’s service dog, Ralph, also stopped by to escort Piper down the hall to celebrate.

In late June, after more than eight months of constant treatment, doctors said the tumor was gone and Piper was finally declared cancer-free.

Photo courtesy of the Lardes family.

“We have waited so long. We’ve been working toward that since the day of the diagnosis,” Bailey said. “Getting to that day was the greatest relief we had ever felt.”

After being cancer free, Piper raised money to donate toys, blankets, and stuffed animals to Children’s Hospital Colorado for the other patients. Doug said she was inspired to do this because, after her first night in the hospital, a little boy next door sent Piper a stuffed penguin to help her feel better after hearing her cry.

“I think that was almost more important to her,” Doug said. ‘She doesn’t know how big cancer really is. She doesn’t know what could have happened. To her, being cancer free felt small, but it was big to be able to raise money and things for other sick children.”

Today, Piper, now 5 and a half, has just started kindergarten and has joined her first soccer team. She enjoys math classes, family movie nights, playing with her 3-year-old brother, Nixon, and watching her favorite TV shows, Doc McStuffins and TOTS, both of which align with her medical career aspirations.

Although Piper has been cancer-free for a few months, her parents said their lives have not gone back to how they were before the cancer diagnosis, and it probably never will.

“It just changes your whole outlook on life,” Doug said.

“There’s still a lot of trauma that we’re all dealing with,” Bailey said. “We have to get through it to get back to normal while carrying those feelings with us.”

Photo courtesy of the Lardes family.

Despite this, Piper’s parents said the experience has brought their family closer together and has changed their priorities and appreciation for life. And for Piper, the experience has made her stronger, giving her the courage to comfort her peers in situations that used to scare her, like a recent school tornado drill.

This year, for Halloween, Piper is hesitating between dressing up as Wonder Woman or repeating last year’s witch costume. She is energetic, polite and eager to show off her latest art projects. She likes to talk about school, but left the room when her parents started talking about her cancer diagnosis because, in Bailey’s words, “she’s heard this one before.”

Piper’s treatments aren’t quite done yet. She is currently in the midst of 12 monthly phlebotomy procedures to remove blood from transfusions she received during treatment and on September 20 she has her first scheduled scans to check for relapses. “She’ll have to test some of these things for the rest of her life,” Doug said.

However, if things continue to go well, Piper’s memories of her cancer experience would largely consist of Ralph the hospital dog and the friends she made on her healthcare team, her parents said. But for those kids still dealing with cancer, Piper says he’s being “a lot of bravery.”

“You don’t always have to be afraid,” Piper said.

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