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Karen Willenbrink

Age 5 | Cancer

On May 19, 2005, Karen Willenbrink, age 5, had been to see her pediatrician. Karen had been having high fevers, trouble with ear infections and was feeling very tired. Upon examination by the pediatrician, she taken straight from her pediatrician's office to Kosair Children's Hospital - bypassing the emergency department and being taken directly to an isolation room in the Cancer Care and Renal Center on the seventh floor. Karen was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, or "ALL."

Karen is just one of more than 100 children at Kosair Children's Hospital newly diagnosed with cancer each year. The hospital boasts a full range of services for cancer patients, including bone marrow transplant. It is affiliated with the Children's Oncology Group, the National Cancer Institute and the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer. These affiliations all provide access to highly advanced cancer research and treatment during the earliest stages. The Cancer Care and Renal Center at Kosair Children's Hospital has also received accreditation with commendation in seven of nine areas from the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer (CoC). Kosair Children's Hospital has been accredited since 1959, making it the oldest continuously CoC-accredited children's oncology program in the country.

Fast-Spreading Cancer

ALL is a fast-spreading cancer of white blood cells. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that the body uses to fight infections. With ALL, bone marrow produces unformed cells called "blasts" that normally develop into lymphocytes. These blasts are abnormal, and therefore cannot fight infections. The number of abnormal cells (or leukemia cells) grows quickly. The cancer cells squeeze out the healthy red and white blood cells, including platelets a body must have to function normally.

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, about 4,000 new cases of ALL are diagnosed in the United States annually. It appears most often in children 10 and under. Although ALL is the most common form of leukemia in children, it can appear in people of any age.

Symptoms can depend on how many normal blood cells the child has, in addition to the number of leukemia cells produced and where they collect in the body.

  • Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Low numbers of red blood cells can lead to anemia -- feeling tired or weak, being short of breath and looking pale.
  • White blood cells fight infections. Low numbers of white blood cells can lead to fever and frequent infections that are hard to treat.
  • Platelets control bleeding. Low numbers of platelets can lead to cuts that heal slowly, easy bruising or bleeding and tiny red spots under the skin (petechiae).
  • High numbers of leukemia cells can cause pain in the bones or joints, lack of appetite, headache or vomiting.

Karen's Treatment

Karen began chemotherapy treatments and was able to return home on the eighth day after first being admitted to Kosair Children's Hospital. Her cancer was in remission. Since that time, Karen has been returning to the hospital for monthly chemotherapy treatments to keep her body in remission from the leukemia. If all goes well, Karen will celebrate an "End of Chemo Party" toward the end of summer, 2007. The staff of the Kosair Children's Hospital Cancer Care and Renal Center hosts a celebration party for every child when chemotherapy treatment ends.

Other than the days she comes to the hospital for treatment, Karen has never missed a day of school. In fact, Karen graduated the first grade in May 2007 "with honors" at Bowen Elementary.

"Hank and I are so appreciative not only of our pediatrician, but the wonderful care and treatment Karen received at Kosair Children's Hospital," exclaimed Karil. "We have no idea what we would have done if we had to go to another city."

Read Another Story

Thinking big for kids with cancer:

Hundreds of children receive cancer treatment each year at Kosair Children's Hospital Cancer Care and Renal Center. For their parents and families, having a place in Louisville that takes care of their children means they don't have to travel elsewhere.

Thanks to you and your support of the Children's Hospital Foundation, the caregivers at the hospital are ready to help not only the children, but their families as well, through funding of programs, equipment, research, education and even facilities enhancement. Most people don't like to think about their child needing cancer treatment. Thanks to the Children's Hospital Foundation and Kosair Children's Hospital, they don't have to. The hospital and its specialists are ready at a moment's notice.

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