The Dance Continues
She’s not Making it Up — Cancer’s Tough, but She’s Tougher
Most teenage girls love make-up tutorials. 15-year-old Kate Campa is no exception – and yet fighting blemishes and acne aren’t her biggest challenges. While she’s creating the perfect contour, she’s also fighting cancer.
It’s a good thing her daughter is so strong-willed, says her mom, Lili, an Assistant Principal at Gila Ridge High School in Yuma, Arizona. “For Kate, it’s not a matter of if she’s going to beat cancer, but when.” Lili says her daughter has always been strong, determined and focused, and those traits served her well while taking on the biggest competitor of her life — a rare and aggressive tumor.
It’s why creating a Youtube Channel helped. It’s a coping tool. Something to keep her mind occupied while her body fights back. “I’m bald; and it is what it is; with or without make-up I still feel beautiful,” she says with a self-possession beyond her years.
That kind of poise and confidence was probably nourished during her journey as a competitive dancer. Before Cancer rocked her family’s world, Kate attacked everything with passion and determination – school, student council and especially dance. She’d been honing her skills since she was just 2-years-old and had won multiple scholarships and awards for several companies, participated in prestigious camps and worked with choreographers the likes of Debbie Allen. Dancing had been the center of Kate’s world. Her future looked bright.
Then, for a moment – the music stopped.
A Shocking Diagnosis
In September 2018 when Kate was 14, a sudden and crushing pain in her back pain wouldn’t let up. At first, she assumed it was related to training for a fierce dance competition she’d just prepared for, or maybe even caused by her mattress. There were so many logical explanations. But when she landed in the ER and an X-ray showed nothing, Kate was advised to engage in physical therapy. And after six weeks of grueling work, the pain persisted. “My physical therapist said I was putting in more than 100 percent, but there was still no change,” Kate remembers. So she was referred for an MRI.
And as it turned out, there was indeed a reason physical therapy hadn’t worked. The MRI revealed every parent’s worst fear — a mass. Kate’s pediatrician referred the family to Phoenix Children’s. Her doctors there found Ewing Sarcoma, a rare cancerous tumor that lodges in the bones or surrounding soft tissue. These aggressive tumors occur in 9 to 10 out of 1 million kids between the ages of 10 and 19.
“It was shocking,” said her mother. “It’s the most awful thing in the world to hear your child has cancer.” The tumor had infiltrated the left side of Kate’s pelvis, and had already spread to other areas. Worse, it was inoperable.
“The word cancer is traumatizing. It was a lot to absorb, and my husband and I wondered how we would break the news to Kate,” said her mom. Kate says she too, was shocked, because she had always been so healthy. She cried when she found out she would lose her hair, but she also faced it with the same competitive spirit she’d always channeled throughout her life.
Since then, Kate has endured 12 rounds of chemotherapy with the help of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. A port was installed so Kate could receive treatment at home while maintaining as much of her normal routine was possible, considering her energy level. After several rounds of chemo, Kate would go to Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale through a strategic partnership with the Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Phoenix Children’s. There, she received proton beam therapy, a more precise radiation regimen more suitable to children, whose tissues are still developing. For 31 days, Lili watched as her daughter’s skin became raw and red, and her signature energy drained.
“Proton beam therapy is more targeted and very potent,” said her mom. “But she was so strong; her fierce competitive spirit helped her to be victorious.” Lili also mentioned that the special relationship between Mayo Clinic and the Phoenix Children’s has made for better care for pediatric patients. While Mayo’s facility serves adults, provisions have been made to meet the unique needs of children; there is a separate waiting room and Child Life Specialists on staff to help patients cope and learn, plus Animal-Assisted Therapy. “It has a very similar feel to Phoenix Children’s,” Lili shares.
The Dance Continues
The journey over the past year has made a profound impact on Kate’s life. “She went from dancing 15+ hours a week to none,” said her mom.” But she says bonding with her team of doctors and nurses at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders made all the difference. She says the doctors and nurses at Phoenix Children’s all helped her to cope with the rigors of treatment. They were forthright in their communication with her, and even more importantly, they made her laugh. Kate also stayed connected to her passion for dance, showing her dance videos to the team and also taking private lessons when she could. She was also awarded a $10,000 gift from Dancers Against Cancer, an organization that offers relief and resources to patients and families during their journeys. The organization also invited Kate to participate in their public service announcement video, and she was flown to Hollywood to share her story.
In many ways, Kate is still the same teenager she’s always been. In between showing off her make-up skills and her favorite tennis shoe brands, Kate tells her Youtube audience: “It’s been hard. I loved my school and my friends, and I can’t wait to go back.” The hardest part, she says, is “waiting for the scans. I get really nervous,” she says. Still, Kate says she’s developed some wisdom over the past year. Her advice to other kids facing a similar struggle? “It’s gonna be hard at first, but push through it, and find something to do help you through.”
While Kate’s making progress, she still has to endure another round of radiation to destroy a few stubborn lesions that linger, and then recovery as she heads into her sophomore year. She’s hoping to return to school in the fall – still Kate, the relentlessly fierce competitor. She’s even started to dip her toe back into the dance world with a few volunteers who have stepped up to offer private lessons that allow her to take things very slowly, at her pace, until her bones strengthen and heal.
But so much has changed, too.
“I’ve got an incredible support system. It made me stronger. And, I feel like it made me closer to my family. We’re closer to God now too, because we pray every night,” she adds.
Her mom sums it up: “Now, we take nothing for granted. Even simple moments have more meaning for us. When we’re sitting together eating dinner, we really look into each other’s eyes when we talk. We feel very strongly Kate will make a complete recovery. But we still want to soak up every second we have together.”
Life with Spina Bifida only slows him down a little