OKLAHOMA CITY - When you get five siblings together for a board game, the play can get competitive quickly. Today, the Asher family is playing the game 'Sorry,' and it's just grateful to be all together at their Yukon home.
About one year ago, the four brothers rallied around their sister, 11-year old Mackenzie. She had been complaining for days about feeling extremely tired.
“I was tired really tired! I had a lot of nausea too,” Mackenzie said.
Her dad picks up the story, remembering when he dropped her at a summer camp, only to have her call an hour later saying she simply couldn’t handle it.
“So, I picked her up, and it was in the sunlight and I don't know if it was the light at the moment, but I could just instantly tell that she was yellow," said dad Jayson Asher. "She had a yellowish color to her, and it was jaundice."
Doctors at the Children’s Hospital confirmed Mackenzie had leukemia. In her case, it was one of the most severe types of leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.
Asher chokes up at the memory of receiving the diagnosis.
“It’s hard to talk about," he said. "I mean it was a shock.”
The next shock was when a predicted three-week hospital stay to start chemotherapy stretched into a seven-month medical ordeal.
Her pediatric oncologist, Dr. David Crawford, confirms “her diagnosis was particularly troublesome because she had a mutation in one gene.”
For Mackenzie, the things she loved to do, including ballet with friends or swimming, had to be put on hold. Round after round of chemotherapy did not wipe out the cancer cells in her blood.
She needed a stem cell transplant and, at first, that looked very promising when two individuals who signed a donor registry were found to be perfect matches. Each donor ended up backing out of the procedure.
That left doctors to consider Mackenzie’s mother, who was willing to do the transplant but was not a perfect match. Thankfully, the stem cell transplant worked.
Jayson said the staff at the Jimmy Everest Center for Cancer was supportive and professional the entire way through the many hard turns in Mackenzie’s treatment.
“You know, they saved her life,” he said, shedding a tear. “You know, as a parent, you don't know how to thank somebody for that.”
Mackenzie has found ways to thank the doctors and nurses in her own special way, creating little packages with notes and candy. Crawford said she’s touched him many times with her gifts.
“She’s made many, many individualized cards for me, and I post them around proudly," he said. "They’re really special.”
Mackenzie is back at her ballet studio, dancing with her friends. She’s able to play with the family dog and swing in the backyard.
She’ll have to wait until her chemotherapy port is removed before she can swim due to a risk of infection. She’s said swimming is something she’s really looking forward to again.
Her treatment is not over yet. She’s been chosen to take part in a clinical trial that will take place in August in Washington DC. The treatment she will receive is designed to boost the ability of her stem cell transplant to fight off any lingering cancer cells in her blood.
It’s been a tough battle, but Mackenzie is smiling and winning.
If you’d like to help children like Mackenzie fight cancer, consider donating.
'Kids With Courage' is sponsored by the Jimmy Everest Center.