How a Pelham mother and daughter are raising awareness to childhood cancer

By MICHELLE LOVE | Staff Writer

PELHAM – It’s been a rough year for Lana Turner. In Feb. 2020, Lana was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of cancer, at the age of 18 and spent the following eight months at Children’s of Alabama undergoing treatment.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and Lana and her mother, Danielle, have made it their mission to raise awareness of what so many families go through every day.

Lana and Danielle’s story began when Lana passed out while attending Troy University. Danielle advised her to go to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with a stomach virus. Danielle’s motherly instincts kicked in and told her it was not just a virus.

“She had Facetimed me later that day, and I noticed up under her eyes it was just extremely black almost like she wore eye makeup and it had smeared. I was like, ‘No, this isn’t right,’” Danielle said.

Danielle picked Lana up and drove her to their own doctor where they drew her blood and checked her vitals. Lana was then transported via ambulance to Children’s of Alabama due to her dangerously high white blood count. It was then that doctors diagnosed her with AML.

“We were shocked because you know you hear about this happening to other people, but you think, ‘Oh, this isn’t supposed to happen to us,’” Danielle said.

Childhood cancers tend to attack different areas of the body compared with cancers formed in adulthood. The most common childhood cancers are leukemias, lymphomas, brain tumors and bone cancer. While these cancers can also form in adults, it is more common for adult cancers to strike the lung, colon, breast, prostate and pancreas.

Compared with other cancers like breast and pancreatic, the amount of research surrounding childhood cancers is surprisingly slim. While treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation do work in treating some childhood cancers, the short-term and long-term side effects are monumental and do not guarantee anything.

“I told the doctor that I didn’t want any kind of statistics on what Lana’s chances were,” Danielle said.  “I didn’t want to know if they were 1 percent or 99 percent, because I felt like her chances were all up to her.

Danielle said one of the more heartbreaking aspects of childhood cancer is the lack of research and extensive medicine, which usually means a grim fate.

“It’s just heartbreaking. During [Lana’s] journey, we have lost six children,” Danielle said, referring to children on the floor. “Several of those children were sent home on hospice because they had no choice. There was nothing else the hospital could do for them.”

As a result, Lana began to suffer from survivor’s guilt. In memory of the friendships she made with the children, Lana said she chose to fight to bring as much attention to childhood cancer as possible.

Cancer during COVID-19

A month after Lana’s diagnosis, Children’s of Alabama shut down due to COVID-19. Danielle said that’s when everything changed.

“My other children couldn’t come in and see her, and we were pretty much secluded,” Danielle said. “None of her friends could come see her. It was more emotional to go through this during the pandemic because she didn’t have that extra support. She just had me, and I could go up there and stay with her but nobody else could…she’s a teenager she needed more than that. She needed her friends, and it was rough for her to leave her brother and sister.”

While isolated on the oncology floor, Lana said she became very close with the nurses and other patients. Being able to bond over their shared experiences was something that helped Lana get through the bad days. Danielle said Lana was “the big sister [on her floor]” to the other children.

“I was mainly surrounded by children who were like 2, 5 and 10 years old,” Lana said. “Once I was diagnosed and started going through treatment, it amazes me how we [me and the children] were going through the same things but even though I’m older than them and twice their size, they’re going through the same rigorous treatment and medicine that I’m going through. How do their bodies go through that when they’re so little?”

That understanding of what each is dealing with is something that helps them get through it together.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said in my life, ‘Oh, I understand, I know what you’re going through.’ And the truth is, unless you’re going through the same thing, you really don’t understand,” Danielle said. “The things that these kids go through not just physically but emotionally and personally, it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I understand,’ and move on.”

As the big sister on the floor, Lana said she tried to keep morale high but it was extremely difficult, especially with the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. However, she and others on the floor found ways to smile.

“There’s this big window and people would leave drawings, Bible verses, inspirational words and other things on the window,” she said. “I remember there was this little girl was leaving to go home for a few days and she left a note that said, ‘Good luck, have a good round, we’ll miss y’all.’ I think that was a big part of helping others feel like they had somebody. Because I had my mom but there were so many of the other kids that they weren’t able to see their mom or their dad.”

Support from local organizations

As with adulthood cancers, there are many burdens that come along with childhood cancers, most of them financial. Having to endure the stress of financial woes in addition to helping family members fight for their life can weigh heavily on everyone involved.

Danielle and Lana said they wanted to highlight the various organizations that help relieve some of these burdens and help families sleep a little better at night.

The Wings of Hope Pediatric Foundation is a Chelsea-based organization dedicated to helping primarily families with a terminally-ill child. They provide financial assistance and even assistance with daily tasks and emotional support.

According to Lana, the goal of the foundation is to allow families as much uninterrupted time with their child as possible. The foundation holds a special place in Danielle’s and Lana’s hearts because of a very special offer they made one day.

“They called me one day and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to pay your mortgage for you,’ and I was like, ‘Excuse me?’” Danielle said.

They also wanted to mention aTeam Ministries, which is another Alabama organization dedicated to providing spiritual, financial and emotional support to families with sick children.

“I actually won a scholarship through them,” Lana said. “They are big in prayer and they have a program called ‘Home Away from Home’ which is where they provide housing for people traveling into the Birmingham area for treatment.”

Looking to the future

Lana is currently in remission and undergoing targeted chemotherapy for the next few months. Looking toward the future, she said she still has a long way to go.

“Because of one of my mutations, I’m at a higher risk for things like breast cancer, ovarian cancer and like 10 other cancers,” Lana said. “I’m also a higher risk for becoming infertile. There are so many things I have to face in the future because of my cancer. It isn’t like breaking your leg where once it heals you’re completely fine. It’s a life-long battle.”

Danielle said she thinks childhood cancers don’t get as much attention in the public because “nobody wants to see sick children.” She and Lana will continue, however, to raise awareness in any way possible.

“If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t just go away. We have to keep on talking about it,” Danielle said.