After doctors diagnosed Kalecia Simmons' 7-year-old daughter Riley with cancer July 26, Simmons' family put all their plans on hold.
It started earlier that month when Riley began experiencing abdomen pain. Her family took her to the emergency room at Geary Community Hospital three nights in a row — once for blood work and then for a battery of tests which turned up nothing.
Then finally, on the third night, Simmons said Riley reported a lump in her side and the ER doctor ordered a CT scan.
The scan revealed a cancerous mass in Riley’s stomach — a wilms' tumor, they would later learn.
Wilms' tumors are a form a childhood cancer impacting the kidneys, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. They're not as aggressive as leukemia, Simmons said, but any cancer in anyone of any age is concerning.
Riley’s illness is stage four — the final stage of cancer where it has spread to other body parts. Her cancer has spread to her lungs, according to Simmons.
“It took me a little bit of time to process and come to a realization of what that meant for our family going forward,” Simmons said.
Riley began treatment at Children’s Mercy of Kansas City shortly after her diagnosis.
Plans for trips and activities such as gymnastics and other sports went by the wayside as she and her family stopped, caught their breath, and tried to adjust to what was happening to Riley — to understand.
“We just realized everything is on the back burner now and Riley’s health is our family’s priority,” Simmons said.
Because of COVID-19 and because Riley is now immunocompromised, the family must extra careful who they expose themselves and Riley to; they would hate to bring something home to her.
“We just have to be really protective of her,” Simmons said.
In an act of solidarity with her daughter who has lost her hair to chemotherapy, Simmons shaved her head.
Simmons, her friends, and her extended family have also started a foundation, called Rally for Riley.
Simmons said she is excited for this month, because September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month so her foundation can do awareness-boosting actives.
Rally for Riley will focus on helping other children and their families through their struggles. Riley’s family is military, so they have insurance, Simmons said. Their family has also received an outpouring of support from community members who know and love them so their needs are more or less taken care of as a family, Simmons said.
She said she approached several local businesses about providing items for Children’s Mercy patients.
Simmons appreciates even small contributions, even something as seemingly small as a personal hygiene kit.
Simmons recalled going to the hospital in Kansas City with her family on a Saturday morning and having to stay, unexpectedly, for seven days. During that time, she had to track down, among other things, clothing, transportation, and a place for her other children to stay.
The foundation will also provide education for other families of childhood cancer sufferers.
“This gives us an opportunity to bring awareness,” Simmons said.
When Riley has finished her treatments, the hope is to provide a way for children with cancer to socialize.
“We want to focus on being able to give them a safe social environment,” Simmons said. “Kids still need to be social. You try to give them as much normality as you can. During COVID-19, it’s difficult.”
Simmons said she started the foundation now because she has a platform.
"I looked at it like, 'now is when you need to start a foundation, because you have the attention of people,’” Simmons said. "I don't want attention just for my ego. If I have attention, I want to bring awareness and I want to make a difference and I want to impact and I want to influence. So every opportunity I get to do that, I want to take advantage and I want to show my kids that that's what you do when you have a platform."
Riley continues receiving treatments at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
She and her daughter have temporarily relocated to Kansas City until the first week of October so they don’t have to travel back and forth between the hospital and their home in Junction City.
Simmons recalls walking into Children’s Mercy Hospital for the first time and being blown away by how large it was. Walking to the desk, she said, was like an out-of-body experience.
“I think I was in shock for a couple of days,” Simmons said.
Simmons has had the occasional “why me” moment since her daughter's diagnosis.
“This is probably the biggest battle I've ever faced in life,” she said. “I try to look at it in the most optimistic way possible because it’s an opportunity to show my faith and it’s an opportunity to prove to myself that I’m a conqueror and also to teach my family what conquering obstacles looks like. I can’t afford to get in a deep depression and not respond, because there’s so many people who rely on me, to include my children and my husband and my other family out of state."
Riley is doing well, her mother said, coping by doing things she enjoys such as watching dance and gymnastics videos. Her family has encouraged her to be healthy in order to keep herself well throughout her illness and she has adopted those practices — physical activity and healthy eating — as well.
"Riley is definitely a little fighter,” Simmons said. “She’s trying to be strong for herself and then also for her brothers and sisters. And I think she's trying to be strong for me and her dad as well. She has handled her chemotherapy very well.”
Children’s Mercy doctors and other medical professionals have helped Riley cope by getting down on her level and explaining things in language she can understand, Simmons said.
Riley fears her upcoming surgery to remove the tumor, but her family is doing what they can to keep her positive and help her be resilient and healthy.
She has months to go before she’s in the clear — months that will include radiation treatments and the surgery — but her mother has hope Riley will be in the clear by or before Christmas.
“We’re going to have an amazing story after this is all over and I can’t wait for the celebration,” Simmons said.