When 12-year-old Caroline Richards first mentioned a pain in her right arm last December, her mother, Lauren, chalked it up to a minor injury -- probably just a muscle pulled during basketball practice. But a few weeks later, Caroline woke up in the middle of the night, saying it felt like knives were stabbing her in the bone. That's when Lauren feared that it was something far worse.
Her fear was confirmed after a whirlwind day that included appointments with their pediatrician, a pediatric orthopedic specialist, an x-ray and an MRI. The diagnosis: osteosarcoma in Caroline's humerus, near the shoulder.
A new home base for osteosarcoma treatment
While the news sent the Richards family reeling, they soon got to work finding the best place for osteosarcoma treatment. After a few phone calls, a family friend put them in touch with MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital
Two weeks later, they left their home in Austin for their first visit. They've made Houston their more-or-less permanent base ever since then.
While leaving behind family and friends was difficult, the Richards quickly found comfort and support at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital.
"Along with the excellent physician care that we get, the nurturing environment of the Children's Cancer Hospital really is what keeps us at MD Anderson," Lauren says. "It really is like a little pediatric oasis. There's a lot of love there. Caroline gets disappointed if her blood counts aren't high enough to go in for chemo because she loves the nurses so much."
Finding comfort and support during osteosarcoma treatment
In addition to the comfort they've received from Caroline's doctors and nurses, the Richards have found support through some special programs geared toward pediatric patients and their families. Caroline is keeping up with her Austin classmates, thanks to tutoring and curriculum support provided by her teachers with the hospital's K-12 education program, while Lauren participates in Candlelighters, a weekly support group for MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital parents and family members.
The family has also formed close friendships with two other families fighting pediatric osteosarcoma.
These resources and relationships have been a huge help, especially considering the challenges that have come with Caroline's treatment, Lauren says.
Chemotherapy regimens for osteosarcoma haven't changed much since the 1980s -- a problem Lauren plans to address through advocacy -- and Caroline was slow to respond to the existing treatments.
Then, following limb salvage surgery in April, Caroline endured nerve damage that affected her ability to walk. She's now undergoing further chemo for lung metastases.
With chemotherapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy on their agenda, the Richards continue to find new sources of strength at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital. Lauren calls the occupational therapy team amazing, while Caroline's physical therapist has earned the nickname 'Superman' for his ability to inspire her to keep working. At the same time, Caroline is paying it forward by making time to encourage and cheer on other pediatric patients undergoing physical therapy, even while she's exhausting herself in her own sessions.
These bonds have been the silver lining of Caroline's cancer journey, Lauren says. "Caroline has even said, 'My life is better because I have cancer. My life is better because I would have never had these experiences with these people.'"