"At first you feel numb," says Angela Davidson, recalling the day in 2004 when she got the doctor's phone call. For weeks, her 5-year-old daughter, Rebekah, had complained of pain in her neck, then her legs, then pelvis. Rheumatoid arthritis, the doctors guessed. But further tests revealed a softball-sized tumor on Rebekah's adrenal gland near the kidneys. Even worse, the cancer had already spread to her bones. "I felt like the doctor was stalling," Angela says. "Then he said, 'Go home, get Rebekah, and get her to the hospital.'" The diagnosis: stage 4 neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer that mostly affects young children.
The next day, Rebekah had surgery to remove part of the tumor. That first operation began a journey that would mean endless trips to the hospital, scary procedures and untold sleepless nights for Angela, now 35, and her husband, Buddy, 38. But the next few years would also show this Dayton, Ohio, family the strength and support of loved ones, the power of hope and the amazing resilience of their little girl.
For the Davidsons, getting their heads around Rebekah's illness was hard enough. But there were logistics to consider: The hospital was an hour away, and they had Rebekah's younger brothers– Jacob and infant twins Josh and Luke–to care for as well. To the rescue: Angela's seven sisters, who all live nearby. "It was 24/7," says Buddy, marveling at how he and Angela would come home to a super-clean house (key to protecting Rebekah's immune system) and home-cooked meals in the fridge.
After seven rounds of chemotherapy, Rebekah underwent a risky stem cell transplant. The doctors warned that she might not come out alive. "I'd be in the hospital with Bekah and trying to breastfeed the babies," Angela says. Again, her family pitched in, with Angela's many nieces pulling babysitter shifts in the Davidsons' temporary quarters, a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital. "I felt so torn between my kids," Angela says. "But it all worked out."
After the transplant came more drugs and radiation. Despite the grueling treatments, Rebekah always bounced back. When her hair fell out from chemo, she dressed up as the Little Mermaid for Halloween, a red wig covering her head. "Kids are unbelievable," Angela says. "They're stronger than adults."
Rebekah finished treatment in August 2005, and last year, she celebrated being cancer-free with a princess party on her 10th birthday. Instead of gifts, she asked for donations to A Kid Again (akidagain.org), a group that helps provide quality time for sick kids and their families.
Angela and Buddy know Rebekah's not out of the woods yet, but they're full of hope. And the whole family's learned some big lessons: Stay positive. Ask for help when you need it. Take one day at a time. And never give up.
Angela updated family and friends via Caringbridge.org, a provider of free web sites for people with sick loved ones. Here are more resources for families of kids with cancer:
Brave Kids (Bravekids.org)
Medical info plus message boards to connect children and parents.
Cancer Really Sucks (Cancerreallysucks.org)
Started by teens for teens with loved ones facing cancer.
National Children's Cancer Society (Children-cancer.com)
Financial assistance, education and emotional support for kids and families.
Pediatric Oncology Resource Center (Acor.org/ped-onc/)
Resources on family support, medical information, treatment issues and more.
Ronald McDonald House (Rmhc.org)
Offers families lodging and meals while their child receives treatment.