‘We had to be strong for our little Addi’
Enid, Okla. — When Ashley Epps took her 2 1/2-year-old daughter Addison to an urgent care clinic on Aug. 31, 2018, she expected to receive antibiotics for an ear infection. Instead, after more than 24 hours of exams and tests, she learned her daughter has cancer.
She shared her story to offer support and understanding to other parents, as her own daughter begins cancer treatment.
Ashley, who is a special education, history and English teacher at Enid High School, said Addison had been lethargic, and had stopped some of her normal play activities, for several weeks leading up to that visit to the urgent care clinic.
When she and husband, Steven “Ty” Epps, took Addison to the clinic, Ashley said she was sure it was for an ear infection that had gotten worse. But, on that day, Ashley said her daughter’s skin color also had started taking on a yellowish tint.
She said it didn’t take the urgent care doctor long to figure out the issue was bigger than an ear infection.
“The lady came in and looked at her and said, ‘You need to get her to the emergency room,’” Ashley said.
An emergency room visit revealed Addison had low levels of hemoglobin — the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. The family, by now joined by Addison’s grandmother, Angie Epps, were referred to Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center.
Blood tests there revealed Addison had a low white blood cell count.
“They told us it looked like it might be cancer, and they needed to do more tests,” Ashley said.
The family spent three hours waiting on the results of that blood exam to confirm if Addison had cancer.
“That was the worst three hours of our life, waiting and going back and forth, because when you hear ‘cancer,’ it’s so scary,” Ashley said. “I don’t think I’ve prayed that hard in all my life.”
Angie said it “was the hardest thing ever,” seeing her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter waiting for the results.
When the results finally came in, they offered some hope. The doctors reported Addison’s tests did not show “typical-looking cancer cells,” Ashley said.
She clung to that hope the rest of that night, waiting for an oncologist to arrive the next morning, a Saturday, to confirm the diagnosis.
More tests followed, and six more hours of waiting on results. Ashley described that period as a “roller coaster of emotions.”
The roller coaster bottomed out late that afternoon when the doctors came back with a definite diagnosis: Addison had developed acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a form of cancer in which bone marrow produces too much of a particular type of white blood cell.
Ashley said her initial reaction to the diagnosis was disbelief.
“I remember feeling, ‘There’s no way this is happening — she’s been healthy, she just has an ear infection,’” Ashley said. “I never expected her to go in for an ear infection and come out with cancer.”
Angie said it didn’t take the family long to overcome the initial surprise, and rally around Addison’s fight against cancer.
“I was just in shock, but I knew we would get through it,” Angie said. “We knew we had to be strong for our little Addi.”
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), ALL is the most common cancer diagnosed in children and represents approximately 25 percent of cancer diagnoses among children younger than 15 years.
While ALL is the most common form of childhood cancer, it also is one of the most successfully treated, with a five-year survival rate of approximately 90 percent for children younger than 15 years, according to NCI. But, NCI also warns the condition worsens quickly if left untreated.
Ashley said the doctors, given Addison’s age and condition, expect about a 95 percent chance she’ll make it to be cancer-free.
“The doctors told us this is their bread and butter, it’s so common,” Ashley said. “They said, ‘If your kid has to have cancer, this is the one you want them to have.’”
Addison had to spend 10 days in the hospital after her diagnosis, culminating in a surgery for a spinal tap, bone marrow biopsy and to install a port for chemotherapy treatment.
Through it all, Ashley said Addison remained cheerful and played happily in her hospital room.
As a mother, the waiting time in the hospital wasn’t as easy. Ashley said she got through it by connecting with another mother whose son had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Just being able to talk to someone who’s been through what you’re going through has helped me so much,” Ashley said. “It helps to have that support.”
She also credited the doctors and staff at OU Children’s with helping her and Ty get through the initial days after the diagnosis.
“They were phenomenal,” Ashley said. “Everyone has just been amazing and supportive.”
Since Addison came home from the hospital, Ashley said the family has benefited from a supportive “work family” at EHS, and a supportive environment for her son, Hayden, 8, at Chisholm Elementary School.
“At first it was really hard for him,” Ashley said. “He knows his sister is really sick, and that’s hard for him. But, that Chisholm community has been really amazing. They’ve stepped up and helped with Hayden, and he’s doing really well.”
Addison now is continuing a course of 28 days of chemotherapy treatments. Ashley said her daughter has remained strong and happy through the ordeal.
“It’s a nightmare, but she’s been so good,” Ashley said. “She has done so amazingly well. I’m sure everyone says they have the strongest kid, but she has been so strong and such a tough little kid through this.”
The hardest part for Ashley has been that Addison doesn’t understand what’s happening to her, or why she has to undergo treatments. But, Ashley said, that may be good in the long run.
“It’s hard to see her going through this so young,” Ashley said. “But, in a way, it’s a blessing too, because hopefully she won’t remember going through all this.”
Addison’s treatment and monitoring will go on for at least two years. After her initial round of chemotherapy, Ashley said the doctors hope to see Addison’s ALL in remission.
That final day of treatment will be on Ashley’s birthday.
This year, Ashley said she can’t think of a better birthday present than for Addison’s treatments to be successful, and for the cancer to be in remission.
“That would be the best birthday present ever,” Ashley said.
Ashley said she and her family are just beginning to understand what it means to fight cancer. But, she had this advice for other parents whose kids face cancer, based on her experience so far: “Just keep your faith in God, and don’t be afraid to reach out and get help.”