On what was supposed to be Natalie's first day of kindergarten, she received a cancer diagnosis.
Five days prior, her mom, Kayla, noticed a large lump in Natalie's lower abdomen while getting her dressed. Their local hospital houses a St. Jude Children's Research Hospital affiliate clinic. There, 5-year-old Natalie was found to have rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer. The main tumor was on her bladder, but tumors had spread throughout her abdomen.
"At her first CT scan, her team at the affiliate was already talking about St. Jude," remembered Kayla. "The doctor said, 'I don't want her to go anywhere else. She will get taken care of anywhere she goes, but St. Jude takes care of families.'"
Knowing once we get to go home cancer-free, that there is nothing owed — that’s everything. That allows us to get back to life. Because people gave, we can focus all our energy on our little girl.
Natalie arrived at St. Jude about three days after her biopsy, in August 2015. She has received 20 weeks of chemotherapy, surgery to remove the tumor, and five weeks of radiation therapy. She is now undergoing further chemotherapy.
"Her treatments have been hard on her," said Kayla. "But she still smiles at every stranger willing to smile back. I’m not sure how she manages to fit all that love and bravery in such a little body."
Natalie has a rare developmental disability called Angelman syndrome. Her mom has been impressed with how St. Jude staff have adapted to her daughter's special needs. One of Natalie's favorite things at St. Jude is music therapy. "Amy, the music therapist, gets right on Natalie's radar and they really jam out!" said Kayla. "Natalie plays a mean tambourine, and she loves the sound of the guitar. It's wonderful to see a hospital go the extra mile with programs like that."
Natalie's dad, Mike, is a Technical Sergeant in the Air Force; he's served in the United States Armed Forces for the past 10 years. Mike has to spend a lot of time away during Natalie's treatment, serving his country. But, Kayla said, "He never has to worry about how we are managing because we are cared for by St. Jude."
Families at St. Jude never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all they should worry about is helping their child live.
"We have a place to stay. We have food and transportation available," explained Kayla. "Knowing once we get to go home cancer-free, that there is nothing owed — that's everything. That allows us to get back to life. Because people gave, we can focus all our energy on our little girl. We just feel so blessed."