By MICHELLE LOVE | Staff Writer
pelham- It has been a difficult year for Lana Turner. In February 2020, Lana was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of cancer, at the age of 18. She was treated at Children’s of Alabama for the next eight months.
September is childhood cancer awareness month, and Lana and her mother, Danielle, have made it their mission to raise awareness of what so many families go through every day.
The story of Lana and Danielle began when Lana passed out while studying at Troy University. Danielle advised her to go to the doctor, where she had a stomach virus. Danielle’s maternal instinct kicked in and told her it wasn’t just any virus.
“She had me facetimed later that day and I noticed that under her eyes it was just extremely black, almost like she was wearing eye makeup and had it smeared. I was like, ‘No, this isn’t right,'” Danielle said.
Danielle picked up Lana and drove her to their own doctor where they took her blood and checked her vital signs. Lana was then transported by ambulance to Children’s of Alabama because of her dangerously high white blood cell count. It was then that doctors diagnosed her with AML.
“We were shocked because you know you hear this has happened to other people, but you think, ‘Oh, this can’t happen to us,'” Danielle said.
Cancer in children tends to attack different parts of the body compared to cancers that form in adulthood. The most common cancers in children are leukemias, lymphomas, brain tumors and bone cancer. While these cancers can also form in adults, it is more common for adult cancers to affect the lungs, colon, breast, prostate, and pancreas.
Compared to other cancers, such as breast and pancreatic cancer, the amount of research into childhood cancer is surprisingly small. While treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation work in treating some cancers in children, the short- and long-term side effects are enormous and do not guarantee anything.
“I told the doctor I didn’t want statistics on Lana’s odds,” Danielle said. “I didn’t want to know if they were 1 percent or 99 percent because I felt like her odds were all up to her.
Danielle said one of the more heartbreaking aspects of childhood cancer is the lack of research and extensive drugs, which usually means a grim fate.
“It’s just heartbreaking. During [Lana’s] trip, we lost six kids,” Danielle said, referring to kids on the floor. “Several of those children were sent home in hospice because they had no choice. The hospital could do nothing else for them.”
As a result, Lana began to suffer from the survivor’s guilt. In memory of the friendships she made with the children, Lana said she chose to fight to bring as much attention as possible to childhood cancer.
Cancer during COVID-19
One month after Lana’s diagnosis, Children’s of Alabama was closed due to COVID-19. Danielle said that then everything changed.
“My other kids couldn’t come in to see her, and we were pretty much secluded,” Danielle said. “None of her friends could come to see her. It was more emotional going through this during the pandemic because she didn’t have that extra support. She just had me, and I could go up there and stay with her, but no one else could… she’s a teenager who needed more than that. She needed her friends and it was hard for her to leave her brother and sister.”
While isolated on the oncology floor, Lana said she had a close relationship with the nurses and other patients. The opportunity to bond over their shared experiences was something that helped Lana get through the bad days. Danielle said Lana was “the big sister” [on her floor]’ to the other children.
“I was mostly surrounded by kids, ages 2, 5 and 10,” Lana said. “Once I was diagnosed and started undergoing treatment, it amazes me how we [me and the children] went through the same things, but even though I am older than them and twice their size, they go through the same rigorous treatment and medication that I go through. How do their bodies go through that when they are so small?”
That understanding of what everyone is dealing with is something that helps them get through it together.
“I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve said, ‘Oh, I get it, I know what you’re going through.’ And the truth is, you really don’t understand unless you’re going through the same thing,” Danielle said. “The things that these kids are going through, not just physically, but emotionally and personally, it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I understand’ and move on.”
As the big sister on the floor, Lana said she was trying to keep morale high, but it was extremely difficult, especially with the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. But she and others on the floor found ways to smile.
“There is a big window and people left drawings, Bible verses, inspirational words and other things on the window,” she said. “I remember there was a little girl who went home for a few days and she left a note that said, ‘Good luck, have fun, we will miss you all.’ I think that was a big part of helping others to feel like they had someone, because I had my mom, but there were so many other kids that they couldn’t see their mom or their dad.”
Support of local organizations
As with adult cancer, there are many burdens associated with childhood cancer, most of them financial. Having to endure the stress of financial hardship, in addition to helping family members fight for their lives, can weigh heavily on everyone involved.
Danielle and Lana said they wanted to highlight the various organizations that are helping to alleviate some of these burdens and help families sleep a little better at night.
The Wings of Hope Pediatric Foundation is a Chelsea-based organization primarily focused on helping families with a terminally ill child. They provide financial assistance and even help with daily tasks and emotional support.
According to Lana, the goal of the foundation is to give families as much undisturbed time with their child as possible. The foundation holds a special place in Danielle and Lana’s hearts because of a very special offer they made one day.
“They called me one day and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to pay your mortgage for you,’ and I was like, ‘Excuse me?'” Danielle said.
They also wanted to mention aTeam Ministries, another Alabama organization dedicated to providing spiritual, financial and emotional support to families with sick children.
“I actually won a scholarship through them,” Lana said. “They are big on prayer and they have a program called ‘Home Away from Home’ where they provide housing for people traveling to the Birmingham area for treatment.”
Looking to the future
Lana is currently in remission and will be undergoing targeted chemotherapy in the coming months. Looking to the future, she says she still has a long way to go.
“Because of one of my mutations, I’m at a higher risk for things like breast cancer, ovarian cancer and 10 other cancers,” Lana said. “I am also at greater risk of becoming infertile. There are so many things I have to face in the future because of my cancer. It’s not like you break your leg and once it heals you’re all right. It is a lifelong struggle.”
Danielle said she thinks childhood cancer doesn’t get as much public attention because “nobody wants to see sick kids.” However, she and Lana will continue to raise awareness in every way possible.
“If you don’t talk about it, it won’t just go away. We need to keep talking about it,” Danielle said.