By John R. Schirmer
For many high school students, their junior and senior years are spent on classes, prom, sports and college choices.
For Kaden Peebles, those two years saw her battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a primary bone cancer affecting small numbers of children, teens and young adults up to age 30.
Peebles was in her junior year at Nashville High School when the condition was discovered. Since then, she’s made countless trips to doctors and hospitals for tests and treatments. And she’s discovered a great deal about herself, her faith, her family and her community.
On May 15, she graduated from NHS, a milestone she wasn’t always sure that she would reach.
With the disease in remission, Peebles is quick to share her story and to put things in perspective.
“First thing, I give all the credit to God for getting through this year,” she said. “I believe it’s God’s will.”
NHS seniors traditionally open the academic year with a class breakfast. Last August, Peebles and her friend Maddison Horton arrived at the breakfast in time to distribute orange wristbands to the 70 or so seniors gathered at the First Baptist Church Family Activities Building.
The wristbands had Psalm 112:7 written on them – “They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.”
That verse was Peebles’ theme for the year and for her battle with Ewing’s sarcoma. “I had some scary moments and put my trust in the Lord,” she said.
NHS was “a lot of help. They’ve been great to work with me and support me. The community was great also. They checked on me and helped any way they could. I’m blessed to come from Nashville.”
Peebles’ story began in June 2014 when she started having pain in her left hip, “just enough to bother me,” she told her family. Her grandfather, Dr. Sam Peebles, recommended ibuprofen. She took it, and the pain went away.
It returned during a late-July trip to the beach, but it “wasn’t too bad,” she said.
The Scrapper cheerleader experienced a recurrence of the pain during two summer camps and visited three doctors, including an orthopedist in Texarkana. The pain subsided, but by then, it was recurring.
As the school year progressed, so did the pain.
Eventually, Peebles, her family and Horton went for an MRI. After the exam and a wait for the results, the doctor came out and said, “I have bad news.”
At that point, Peebles thought of “surgery. IVs. I’m scared of needles and blood,” she said.
Then the doctor explained. “We’ve found a mass.”
Peebles asked, “What’s a mass?”
She found out that it was a tumor.
“He showed us the scans. I couldn’t read them very well,” Peebles said. She had heard of chemo but didn’t know what it meant.
After hearing the diagnosis, “I could tell it was really bad, not just an injury” as she had first thought.
Peebles’ great-uncle Larry Peebles is a radiologist at Collum and Carney Clinic. “He read the scans and said it looks like Ewing’s sarcoma.”
From there, the family went Little Rock for a biopsy, labs, bone scan and CT.
At 6 the next morning, she was told two things: “First, all we know is that it’s localized. Second, come back next week.”
On Feb. 25, 2015, she learned that the tumor was malignant. “It was still odd to me. Kids don’t get cancer. I didn’t know it was treatable,” Peebles said. “As the doctor continued talking, I was crying. I’m 17, and I have cancer.”
Peebles went to an oncologist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital that afternoon, where she and her family learned of treatment options, side effects, “everything. We spent hours there. Then the nurse took us to 4C, the oncology unit. That was the first time I saw it. It became my second home.”
A port was placed Feb. 26, and Peebles began chemo the next week. The three-phase treatment plan was set to last one year.
Phase 1 included six rounds of inpatient chemo. Each round was one week, Peebles said. “Blood counts had to be at a certain number. If not, we had to wait.”
Phase 2 was 32 days of radiation, starting in May. The family got an apartment in Little Rock to be near Peebles, who went home every third weekend.
Phase 3 began while Phase 2 was going on and included 11 rounds of in-patient clinic and outpatient chemo.
Overall, “I spent 91 nights in the hospital,” Peebles said.
During the course of her treatment, Peebles received 31 scans and heart echoes, 103 needle pokes, 55 clinic visits, 1 biopsy, 1 bone marrow aspiration, 4 line placements or removals, 4 trips to the OR, 32 days of radiation, 76 days of chemo, 23 ambulance rides and ERs, 106 bags of antibiotics to treat fever.
She also had 7 dressing changes and 39 units of blood, the first one in the middle of the night.
All those numbers, however, “are a handful to a lot of kids. Some kids are in every week,” Peebles said.
Peebles learned to access the port herself. ACH had “never had a patient access it before.”
Peebles praised ACH and the staff. “People think Children’s Hospital is a sad place with a lot of sick kids,” she said, but she had many fun and memorable experiences there.
“There was a 6-year-old with brain cancer since he was 13 months. One night, we got married. Dad walked me in. We had cake from the cafeteria,” Peebles said.
Peebles was in the hospital on New Year’s Eve 2015. “The teens and I organized a party for our unit.”
The ACH nurses “are wonderful, full of kindness and dedication,” she said. Three of the nurses attended Peebles’ graduation May 15.
Nurses have 12-hour shifts. “They come in at 6 to clock in at 7. They’re there all day or night. Some are still there at 8 o’clock at night or later. When the clock is up, they don’t stop caring.”
Peebles said the three child life specialists played a key role in her stay at ACH. They are involved from the diagnosis through recovery and teach about the procedures along the way. “I fell in love with the program,” she said, so much that she plans to major in family and child studies and specialize in child life.
“They let me shadow them and taught me the method behind what they did. They were really helpful.”
Peebles plans to attend Texas A&M at Texarkana for one year, then transfer to Louisiana Tech. “They have a wonderful family and child studies program,” she said.
While there were happy moments at ACH, there were sad ones as well, Peebles said. “I became close to another teen with a different bone cancer. He beat the cancer and finished treatment in May 2015. In October, he was admitted for the long-term side effects of chemo. He had heart failure and died Oct. 27, the same day the doctor told me I’m in remission.”
Peebles had her port removed earlier this month. “Getting the port removed was kind of like graduation. I had some scars, but it looks good.”
Peebles will return to her doctors every three months for a while, then go every six months. After five years, she will only make one annual visit.
Through the entire experience, “My family was right by my side, and my best friend Maddi was too,” Peebles said.
“When you face something like cancer, it forces you to grow up. Life no longer revolved around tests or football. It was which chemo this week. The Red Devil chemo was intense.”
Peebles was maid of honor for Scrapper Homecoming. Before the traditional parade, “I had two units of blood platelets and one chemo,” she said.
On the day of the senior breakfast, her counts “we’re nothing. After the breakfast, my energy was gone for the day.”
Peebles “lived in a bubble” much of the time in order to avoid illness because of her low immunity. During those days, “FaceTime helped. I talked to friends to keep up.”
Eventually, she attended a few football games. “That was really pushing it. When I didn’t go, I’d listen on the radio or watch online at the hospital.
NHS senior girls make Scrapper jeans to wear on Fridays. “I wore my Scrapper jeans at the hospital. The nurses did Scrapper cheers in the hallway,” Peebles said.
One of the teens at ACH had leukemia. He had played football at Sylvan Hills in Little Rock. “We were in the hospital at the same time. Friday nights were tough for us.”
Peebles continues to stay in touch with the friends she made at the hospital. “Just because I’m done with treatment and not sick, other kids are still sick. Some of my friends are still sick. Everyone from Children’s is on Facebook. I keep up with them. There’s still a need there.”
Peebles said her “faith in God got me through it. I’m really thankful for everyone who paid for me and supported my family and myself.”
Ewing’s sarcoma is “very aggressive. It spreads quickly. I met others with it, and I’m the only one it didn’t spread to the lungs. It’s a blessing it was localized.”
Through the course of her battle with the disease, “There were times I did not think I’d make it to graduation. Now, the smallest things are exciting. Graduation practice. Scholarship forms. I didn’t know if I’d get to do them. I’m 18. I didn’t know if I’d make it.”