Last year, Kamryn Exley was full of life.
The 10-year-old Maple Ridge dancer was playing a guppy in a mermaid show at the PNE in Vancouver, performing three shows a day for the final week of the fair.
But during costume changes, her mother noticed dark marks on her body.
“Every time she changed her costume, she started getting more and more bruises,” explained Kamryn’s mother, Carrie Exley.
“If you touched her, she would bruise. I mean, she had full energy, she was dancing, but I just had a bad feeling,” continued Carrie.
So, on Sept. 4, the last day of the PNE, Carrie took her daughter to B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Carrie thought that Kamryn possibly had anemia. But, she recalled a breathing incident a couple of days before, when Kamryn let out a gasp. That didn’t sit right with her. And Kamryn wasn’t sleeping well.
When they turned up at emergency Carrie even apologized for being there.
“They assess you right away when they check you in,” explained Carrie.
“I said I probably shouldn’t even be at the emergency, but she’s getting bruises all over the place. And she was looking pretty pale,” said Carrie.
They escorted Kamryn into a room right away.
“I think they had seen it before,” Carrie said.
It took about an hour and a half in total to diagnose Kamryn. X-rays and blood tests were done immediately and finally a blood specialist entered the room.
They believed Kamryn had leukemia.
Information on both the Canadian and American Cancer Societies describe leukemia as a cancer that starts in blood stem cells. With leukemia, there is an overproduction of blast cells when they develop abnormally and don’t develop into mature blood cells. Over time they crowd out normal blood cells.
When leukemia is first diagnosed, there are about 100 billion such cells in the body. To achieve remission, 99.9 per cent of leukemia cells need to be killed during the first month.
Carrie was shocked. She called her husband, who also couldn’t believe the diagnosis.
“He’s like, ‘This is so dumb, there is no way that she has it. They couldn’t diagnose it that fast,’” said Carrie adding that there were really no signs of the cancer in Kamryn.
“She is really high energy, though, and I think the low hemoglobin just didn’t affect her like it would have affected you or me. She hid it well,” said Kamryn’s mother.
At first, the Exleys didn’t tell Kamryn that she had leukemia. They just told her there was something wrong with her blood that was making her bruise. But it didn’t take long for Kamryn to figure it out.
“When I really realized was when I was walking down the hall and I saw a picture of the Disney princesses. None of them had hair. So I was like, ‘Oh,’” Kamryn said with a shy smile.
The next morning, Kamryn had a spinal tap, where they replaced her spinal fluid with chemo drugs. Then on Sept. 8, she had surgery to insert a VAD Port into the right portion of her chest. A VAD Port is a tube that goes to the main artery of her heart in order to inject the chemo drugs so that it doesn’t burn the veins.
Kamryn spent the first two weeks in the hospital before being released into out patient status. To begin with, she was having six different chemo treatments once a week and she was on steroids.
The idea is to get the leukemia into remission right away. But, Kamryn’s didn’t go into remission and she was put in the high-risk category for more intense treatment.
Kamryn would get chemo through a tube in arm, through the port in her chest, sometimes through pill form and sometimes through the spine, where they put her to sleep.
That’s called a lumbar puncture.
“LP for short,” quipped Kamryn knowingly.
The worst part of the treatment, though, was that within the first month, Kamryn lost the ability to walk, the result of taking a steroid called Dexamethasone.
“It eats your muscles,” explained Carrie, adding that Kamryn lost the ability to walk for two weeks.
It took her until this past July to fully recover.
“I could stand up by myself, but I had to push off my legs to get up. That was the first time I didn’t have to do that anymore and I could just get up without my hands,” explained Kamryn.
“It took almost a year to get back. The first month wiped her out, like she couldn’t even lift her legs. We had to carry her and she had to be in wheelchairs. Then it took that long to regain it,” said Carrie.
Kamryn, though, never quit dancing. It was the one constant in her life that kept her going.
“When I was on ‘Dex,’ I went every couple of weeks for, like, one class to, like, try it out and see all of my friends and stuff. But I never really danced that much. I would kind of sit out and watch,” said Kamryn.
Even though Kamryn could barely stand, an Oct. 12 video from class shows her shuffling slowly through dance moves beside her healthy classmates, even though her hair had started to fall out.
“She just kept doing that all year just to keep her muscles going and to have something positive to focus on,” said her mother.
Just after Christmas, her older sister Kelsie, 18, another dancer, decided to choreograph a solo routine for Kamryn, something easier that she could practise to exercise her body and spirit. She never imagined Kamryn would be able to perform it on stage.
But that is what Kamryn is going to do. She will be performing her sister’s choreographed lyrical dance solo at this year’s Terry Fox Run, Sunday starting in Pitt Meadows.
The routine is choreographed to The Climb, original music by Miley Cyrus, although another artist performs this version of the song.
“It’s really special for me. I’m really excited to perform it,” said Kamryn, smiling.
The last time she practised the routine, she added, it was easier for her to dance.
She is now in the maintenance phase of her treatment. She still does chemo every day, but only the pill form. She only has to go to the hospital once a month, for blast treatments.
Kamryn’s hair is growing back. She has gained back 10 of the 25 pounds that she lost.
Her energy is back 100 per cent.
She will continue her chemotherapy treatments until Jan. 5.
“That’s a long time,” Kamryn said, drawing out the ‘O’ sound for five seconds.
But she is determined to be a better dancer than before.
“It’s funny, because this whole time when she would be so sick and she would throw up, she’d say, ‘I’m still going to dance,” said her mother.
“She never cried. She was always pretty positive.”
Kamryn will dance on Sunday.
“I just want to show everybody there that you can beat cancer that it’s possible.”