For 11-year-old Katie Secord, it's all about friends. And the Jackman Elementary sixth grader has a bunch of them.
Good thing, too. Because they were there when she needed them. So was a whole new group of friends at Mercy Children's Hospital.
Katie likes softball, cheerleading and acting. Well, she's just started that acting part. In the classroom, reading and science top the list of favorites -- subjects, that is, but not class periods.
"Even though this isn't a subject, but my favorite period is lunch. ‘Cause you get to talk to your friends and because when you're learning stuff, you're not allowed to talk," said Katie.
Yes, Katie loves to talk, but on March 1, 2013, her talking gave the first clue that something was wrong.
"She seemed to be talking funny, like her speech was kind of garbled. I asked her, ‘Do you feel OK?' She said her throat hurt a little bit," said Katie's mom, Tiffany.
Katie remembers, too.
"I came home and it was getting like when I was talking in the morning, my mom noticed it. My tongue was, like, paralyzed and stuff, and it kept on getting worse," explained Katie.
The early diagnosis was strep throat, but when antibiotics didn't faze whatever Katie had, Tiffany took her to a specialist.
"At that point, he checked her out and noticed there was something funny with her tongue. It wasn't moving correctly. It was kinda swollen and he was really worried about her airway," said Tiffany.
Katie was admitted to a hospital. A neurologist was enlisted.
"She had right side weakness. Her eye on the right side was kind of tracking differently. It was kind of like stroke symptoms," said Tiffany.
By now, Katie was so sick she had lost 10 pounds in a month. If there was any mercy, it was that she was so sick she doesn't remember big chunks of her illness.
But she does remember being scared.
"Yeah, it was scary 'cause I didn't know what they would have to do to, like, fix it," said Katie.
It would get worse.
Katie was sent to the Cleveland Clinic but then was sent home still sick, and getting sicker, sleeping but not eating.
And then…the date.
"It was on Sunday, March 23. You remember all the dates. And that's when her bloodwork was abnormal. The E.R. doctor said, ‘You know, I hate to say it, but it looks like leukemia,'" said Tiffany.
An oncologist confirmed it was Burkett's Leukemia Lymphoma. It's a fast-growing leukemia that's beatable, but takes an aggressive war.
As a parent, just the word "leukemia" is a bitter foe.
"You want to break down. You just want to sit there and cry ‘til it's all better but, you know, being a parent, I knew I couldn't do that because I didn't want her to get hysterical and be upset," said Tiffany.
Weeks of intense chemotherapy would follow.
At Mercy Children's, Katie was learning the names of nurses and eagerly awaiting the next visit from her classmates. They came carrying best wishes and, at times, even blankets -- the warmth of which is so welcome when the chemo is so cold.
"It made me feel better because, like, with all the stuff running, like, I would feel, like, cold," said Katie. "'Cause once it goes through my body, it feels, like, cold."
Tiffany recalls what was, for her, the bottom.
"Probably the ventilator. 'Cause they don't tell you that she will come off of it. So at one point, I'm in the bathroom bawling my eyes out by myself, thinking 'Is she going to be on that forever? Is she ever going to be OK again?' They just can't tell you," said Tiffany.
For a while, Tiffany says every day she thought about losing her daughter.
During those dark days, Katie's Jackman Elementary family became a ray of light, hosting fundraisers, providing a tutor and constantly showing support on their outdoor sign.
After weeks and weeks, the treatment started taking hold, and Katie started coming back.
The relationships formed at Mercy Children's will last a long lifetime.
"So the doctors and nurses all at Mercy Children's were amazing," said Tiffany. "The care. The way they cared for Katie. I could tell that they really cared for her. They ended up, after seeing her all the time, they loved her as she loved them."
That love and care now have Katie in remission and cancer-free. She's back with her friends at Jackman. (Did we mention she says they're her favorite thing about school?)
Her story and ordeal has her mom appreciating the little things in life, looking at them from a new perspective.
"Katie's involved in so many activities now and it's a lot of running, but I'm just happy that she can be doing those activities," said Tiffany.
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