Kelli, diagnosed at 10 months, Neuroblastoma

A perfect strike: Preteen survivor bowls over cancer

When Kelli was 2 1/2 years old, physicians at Texas Children’s Cancer Center discovered she had cancer. Now, she enjoys an active lifestlye.

While many adults yearn to break a bowling score of 100, Kelli averages 115. She also enjoys reading, swimming, bicycling, in-line skating, and her family’s newest hobby, rock climbing. This Houston-area dynamo shows few clues she was once diagnosed with cancer.

Kelli’s triumphant story began when Kelli was a toddler and a high fever warranted a visit to the pediatrician. Expecting her daughter had a virus, mom Lou Ann was stunned by a more serious suspicion.

“I remember the doctor coming across a pea-sized lump — which had been labeled a hernia several months before — and saying, ‘This does not look good.’ ”

The family looked to Texas Children’s Hospital for answers. An ultrasound helped doctors determine Kelli had neuroblastoma, a solid tumor, behind her stomach.

Knowing their 2-1/2-year-old recently had started lessons in gymnastics and bowling, Kelli’s parents found the thought of cancer almost incomprehensible.

“We were both devastated,” says Kelli’s dad, Scott. “Just a couple of years before we had lost a son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Now we thought, ‘How on earth could this be happening to us again?’ ”

Lou Ann agrees. “If I had it to do over again, I probably would ask more questions,” she said. “But at the time, we were so shocked and dazed. Through it all, everyone at Texas Children’s was wonderful. We were treated with such kindness; it was just unbelievable.”

Surgery was followed by a six-month regimen of chemotherapy. Although Lou Ann recalled Kelli was upset about losing her hair at the time, Kelli does not remember her illness. In retrospect, the family treasures the lighter moments shared during her ordeal.

“When Kelli’s hair was just growing back, she told me, ‘Don’t worry, Dad. If my hair can grow back, so can yours.’ ” Scott says. “She enjoys looking at the pictures we took of her running up and down the hospital halls, standing by an IV pole and playing in one of the toy cars.”

The year after she was diagnosed, Kelli was tested every three months for reoccurrence. The following year, she visited Texas Children’s Cancer Center twice for tests. Even though Kelli was given a clean bill of health, she continues to have annual checkups as part of her health-care routine.

“I try to prepare her every time for visits to the Cancer Center,” Lou Ann says. “She’s very concerned about the other patients. If she sees a child she doesn’t know, she goes right up and introduces herself.”

Lou Ann admits the experience changed the way her family views life.

“Our outlook is different than before,” she says. “Now we look at one day at a time, not five years from now. Anyone can have cancer.”

In the course of his work, Kelli’s dad visits the hospital more often. He serves as supervisor of construction services for Ulrich Engineers, the geotechnical engineering firm responsible for the foundation design of Texas Children’s expanded clinic building.

“When I look at those buildings, I have fond memories,” says Scott, who often gives baseball caps and hard hats to the patients. “It was an awfully frightening time, but we got to where we felt that the staff at Texas Children’s Cancer Center was like family. It’s one of the reasons whenever — no matter where — I run into any of them, they deserve a hug.”