Strength through Struggle
Three local families share how pediatric cancer has affected their lives.
One day, the Karr, Wampler, and Loos families were living normal lives filled with the typical ups and downs of work, school, and family life. The next day, they were families navigating the ugly and unfair world of pediatric cancer. Though their individual journeys took them on different paths, those paths were each forged with an incredible amount of bravery, strength, and faith.
Beckett Karr celebrated his sixth birthday with a party at Sky Zone this past March. True to the “Wreck-It Beckett” nickname he earned as a toddler, the birthday boy was thrilled to run, jump, climb, and bounce with his friends. For his parents, Lauren and Geoff, the party carried a heavier significance. It was the first birthday since he turned two that didn’t include chemotherapy after Beckett’s nearly four-year battle with High-Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Beckett received his last chemo treatment through his port on December 21, 2021. He celebrated Christmas port-free, and on New Year’s Eve, his doctor called to say that he was officially cancer-free.
In the summer of 2018, Lauren says that Beckett was a typical, active 2-year-old boy. After returning from a family vacation in Colorado, he became sick with strep throat. Lauren and Geoff took him to the pediatrician for antibiotics. Two weeks later, Lauren says that Beckett had a temper tantrum at a picnic, and he briefly passed out in Geoff’s arms.
“Just like a two year old, I thought maybe he was crying a little too much,” Lauren says. “Three days later, I left for a work trip to Oregon and my husband was putting him in his car seat, and he passed out again.”
Geoff took Beckett to the pediatrician where they ran blood tests. As he and Beckett were eating lunch, the office called and asked them to come back. Geoff later told Lauren that as he entered the office, no one would look him in the eye, and he knew something was wrong. The doctor told Geoff that a team was waiting for Beckett at the hospital.
In a whirlwind of emotion, Geoff took Beckett to University of Missouri Children’s Hospital, where he was officially diagnosed with Leukemia.
Lauren’s mom called her in Oregon at 11 a.m., and her mother’s intuition told her something was seriously wrong. Her employer worked desperately to get her on a flight back to Columbia. At 8:45 p.m., she walked into Beckett’s hospital room.
“After the fact, you look back and are like ‘duh,’” Lauren says. “He was pale, but he’d had strep throat. He had bruises all over, but he was 2. His organs were so enlarged that they were pressing on his lungs, and that’s why he would pass out when he was upset.”
Beckett spent three days in the ICU getting blood transfusions to prepare his tiny body for chemo, then he had surgery to place a port. Within days, he started treatment. After 10 days in the hospital, Beckett went home for four days before becoming sick with a fever and spending seven more days in the hospital.
“A month in, we were hit with another low blow,” Lauren says. “Beckett had a mutation that made the cancer much more likely to come back. We were distraught and our world was crumbling all over. Our nurse practitioner found a study that was happening in some hospitals, and one was Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, which was a no-brainer, because my brother and sister-in-law live there.”
For a year-and-a-half, Lauren and Geoff left their daughter, Kennedy, with grandparents or friends every Sunday night and traveled to Kansas City for 7 a.m. appointments each Monday. The study drug that Beckett received was one that adults had been given for years, but as the Karr family learned, only a small percentage of funding is dedicated to pediatric cancer research.
“It breaks my heart that only 4% of money goes to pediatric research,” Lauren says. “A group that is actively working to fix that is the Super Sam Foundation. I constantly push and tell people to donate your money there.”
As Beckett prepares to enter kindergarten this fall, Lauren says their cancer journey will never truly be over. Beckett will have his numbers checked every two months for the next two years, then will continue every six months for several years. The Karr family will also continue to deal with the side effects of chemo in young children, which can include growth and behavioral issues, weight gain and fertility issues.
“You don’t want to think about kids being sick because it is so unfair,” Lauren says. “There is nothing these kids have done to deserve getting cancer, but it happens around you more than you know. It’s not something I would wish on my worst enemy.”
Lizzy Wampler was brave. She was joyful, fun loving and goofy. She was a good and faithful friend. She was positive. She was complimentary to people. She was strong in her beliefs and in her faith, and she loved to sing and play her ukulele. She loved to put on makeup, and she adored her brother, Daniel, and her sister, Hannah. She had striking blond hair and a smile that lit up her face.
At just 9 years old, Lizzy was battling Osteosarcoma, a rare and aggressive bone cancer, at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. She was experiencing excruciating nerve pain. She was sick and weak from chemotherapy, but seeing the other sick kids in the hospital is what bothered her the most.
“That sums up who Lizzy was,” says Lizzy’s mom, Jennifer. “She was very selfless and very considerate.”
Lizzy was a fourth grader at Cedar Ridge Elementary in 2016 when she began displaying symptoms of growing pains, just as Hannah had several years earlier. One day, as she was wrestling with Daniel, Lizzy fell on her right knee and let out what Jennifer describes as a heart-wrenching scream.
“We took her to the pediatrician who was a little concerned with the swelling and thought it was a pulled ligament,” Jennifer says. “He had us go to an orthopedic doctor for an X-ray, and the doctor came in and said that there was a dark mass in the bone of her right femur. We needed to have an MRI done right away, and it was scheduled for later that day.”
The next day, the Wampler family learned that the mass in Lizzy’s leg was cancer. The day before Thanksgiving 2016, they learned that it was Osteosarcoma.
“As a parent, I had done everything I could to protect my kids,” Jennifer says. “I provided organic foods, I cleaned with organic cleaners. I felt very violated as parent. Your main responsibility as a parent is to protect your child and you feel very helpless at that point.”
For the next 15 months, Lizzy bravely faced surgery to remove almost seven inches of her femur, which was replaced with a titanium rod. She went through an 8-month chemotherapy treatment protocol that kept her at St. Jude’s in Memphis, while Jennifer and her husband John crossed paths as they alternated weeks with Lizzy in Memphis and Hannah and Daniel in Columbia.
As her 8-month protocol was coming to an end and plans for a “No More Chemo” party were underway, her final set of scans showed that the cancer had spread to her pelvis and to additional tissue in her leg. With that reoccurrence, her survival rate dropped to 20%.
“She was devastated, her siblings were devastated,” Jennifer says. “It was worse than the first diagnosis because with the first you have a set of guidelines to follow. Now you ran this whole marathon and you’re told you have to keep running, and we don’t know how long the rest of your journey will be.”
After a tremendous amount of suffering and trauma, Lizzy passed away in Jennifer’s arms at 3:30 a.m. on March 15, 2018.
In death, Lizzy’s light and legacy continue. Through her selflessness, there is hope that other children and families can be spared the horror and trauma that she and her family experienced.
“Before she passed away, she didn’t want to see another child suffer and she didn’t want another child to hear that there is nothing more the doctors can do, and she wanted to donate her body to St. Jude’s,” Jennifer says. “When she passed away, they removed tumors from her lungs, legs and hips and they are now researching those tumors on 9 different continents. We hope they will find a cure for children.”
In Lizzy’s memory, the Wampler family created Lizzy’s Walk of Faith Foundation to raise money for pediatric cancer research and to help other families through their cancer journeys. On Saturday, September 17, the Wampler family will celebrate Lizzy’s life during Lizzy’s Fifth Annual Walk of Faith 5K Walk/Run.
“We felt like Columbia grieved with us, and because of that support, we wanted to do something to give back, because that was Lizzy’s heart,” Jennifer says. “We created her foundation to continue her legacy of love and faith.”
This past winter, Rhyan Loos took her last trip to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She got the news that she no longer needed to return for scans. It was the first time since 2015 that her parents, Jen and Brad Loos, could breathe a sigh of relief.
When the Loos family arrived in Columbia in 2014 for Brad’s new job as an assistant basketball coach at MU, Jen says they were excited for the move and for all that lay ahead for their family. Rhyan started kindergarten the following year, and out of the blue, she began limping, and her mental state began to change.
“She was always outgoing and happy and it switched, and she went from being outgoing to being clingy and cranky,” Jen says. “Looking back, I realize it was because she was in chronic pain. All the pieces fit together now.”
After an X-ray at the pediatrician and a follow-up appointment with a juvenile arthritis specialist, the doctors were certain that Rhyan was suffering from arthritis. But Jen’s intuition was nagging at her, and she asked if it could be cancer.
“She looked at me like a deer in headlights, but they admitted us and did more tests, and it came to the surface that it wasn’t arthritis,” Jen says. “They originally thought it was Leukemia, but it was stage four Neuroblastoma.”
Over the course of a week, additional testing and scans showed that Rhyan had a solid tumor sitting on her hip, and she was covered in cancer, head to toe.
“We started doing chemo here and during that time, we started researching where the best place was to get treatment,” Jen says. “That’s what you do when it’s your kid. We found a specialized team of doctors in Manhattan at Memorial Sloan Kettering who only saw kids with Neuroblastoma.”
In March 2016, the Loos family flew to New York where Rhyan had surgery to remove the tumor. They continued to fly back and forth for her treatment, and by that summer, she was cancer-free. But on Thanksgiving Day 2016, she relapsed with a tumor in the frontal lobe of her brain.
“It was mother’s intuition,” Jen says. “She had really bad headaches, she was throwing up. We flew back to New York and had a craniotomy to remove the tumor, started over with different treatments, and she has been clear ever since.”
As the mother of a now 12-year-old Rhyan, son Brady (13) and daughter Charli (8), Jen reflects on the weight she carried on her shoulders during Rhyan’s battle. She says she struggled between wanting to be with Rhyan while not missing out on the little things in Brady and Charli’s lives.
“I got to a bad place mentally where I couldn’t function,” Jen says. “I tried to do everything and I got to a place where I couldn’t do everything, but I couldn’t do anything.”
Jen finally asked for help. From her mom, who came up to lend extra hands, and from her doctor, who prescribed medication that was as essential to her as Rhyan’s treatment had been to her.
“We try and do it all, and with something that catastrophic, that’s going to set you back mentally,” Jen says. “I learned your brain can only hold so much, and I learned how to deal with it, how to prioritize and ask for help, and how to dish things off to other people that I couldn’t do.”
Today, Rhyan is active and social. She’s chatty, she loves to go outside and explore, and she’s a nurturer who wants to mother everybody. Although she is on growth hormones to counter one of the long-term side effects of chemo and radiation, her sass and spunk are still present.
“She’s always been a little spark since she was little,” Jen says. “That’s the only reason she got through this, because she has so much fire.”
The only reason the Loos family came through their journey with Rhyan with flying colors is the support of the Columbia community.
“Columbia totally embraced us,” Jen says. “We hadn’t been here more than a year.”
In celebration of Rhyan, in appreciation of the Columbia community and in support of other families navigating cancer, the Loos family began Rally for Rhyan, which raises money through various events throughout the year.
The MU basketball team hosts a Rally for Rhyan game each year, which Jen says is still one of the most highly attended games of the season. Rally for Rhyan has raised almost $600,000 in those games, and in total, the organization has raised nearly $800,000.
“To still show up for her and support her now that she’s well, it shows a lot about the town,” Jen says. “It’s a good place.”
How to Support a Family Through Illness and Grief
Offer Support, Not Advice
Trust that the parent has been up at all hours of the night Googling every possible option for their child, and save your medical advice, however important or helpful you think it might be. Unless of course, you’ve been asked for your advice.
“Just be sensitive that they might look like they’re doing great on the outside, but if they’ve gone through any traumatic disease, walk gently with that family, and save the advice for the doctors,” Jennifer Wampler says.
If you want to share something, instead, let that mom or dad know that you see they are doing their very best to care for their child.
When you don’t know what to do or say,
Jennifer suggests offering prayers.
Be Mindful of Siblings
A serious illness affects the whole family, including the siblings of a sick child.
“It affects the siblings when all of the attention is going to that one child,” Jennifer says. “Be mindful when you’re interacting with a family going through a trauma like this. Be mindful of the siblings and what they’re going through.”