by Joni Astrup
Six-year-old Karolyn Barrett never missed an Elk River Relay For Life until last year.
She had to skip the 2010 Relay because she had just been diagnosed with cancer herself.
But she’ll be back again this year. Karolyn, of Ramsey, is the honorary chairperson of the 2011 Elk River Relay For Life, which is set for Aug. 5–6. The event raises money for the American Cancer Society and cancer research. Karolyn is the daughter of Tammy Barrett and Mike Barrett.
Karolyn’s own cancer diagnosis seemed to come out of nowhere.
She was her typical high-energy self in the days leading up to the diagnosis, according to her mom.
The weekend before, she was at a birthday party with friends. “She had a packed day at the beach, playing on the monkey bars and running around,” Tammy said.
When she ran a fever for half a day, her mom didn’t think too much of it. But when the fever returned a few days later, Tammy took her daughter to the doctor.
It was then they learned she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“Mike and I were floored,” Tammy said. “Her white blood cell count was like off the charts.”
The type of leukemia she has comes on very rapidly, and it’s believed Karolyn only had it for two to four weeks before being diagnosed, Tammy said.
They got the diagnosis on July 27, 2010, and intense treatments began right away.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia has a very good cure rate, but the treatment is lengthy. Karolyn has been undergoing chemotherapy for the last year and won’t finish treatments until Nov. 22, 2012.
“We’ve gotten through the ugliest part of the treatment,” Tammy said. Karolyn is now entering the maintenance phase which is little less rigorous.
Cancer has rocked their family’s world before
Tammy and her family have seen their world rocked by cancer before.
Tammy’s older sister, Carolyn Halverson, died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 29.
Karolyn is named after the aunt she never knew.
Tammy is the daughter of Tommy and Joyce Nichols of Elk River. Both Tommy and Joyce have survived cancer.
As Joyce now watches her granddaughter go through cancer treatment, she said while it’s very hard, most of the tears she’s shed are because she feels so proud of the way Karolyn carries on.
“She’d go to kindergarten and she’d have a feeding tube some days. She has braces on her legs (due to temporary weakness caused by the cancer treatment). She’s just so strong and brave,” Joyce said.
Tammy said the treatment has been grueling at times.
Karolyn has spent more than 50 nights in the hospital in the last year, in part due to serious infections that invaded when her immune system was compromised.
Tammy said the hardest part has been watching her daughter go through the treatments and the side effects.
“No child should have to go through this,” Tammy said. “But it’s amazing how all of them do it. It’s just an inspiration.”
Added Joyce: “She just gives us the strength to face each day.”
Tammy copes in part by documenting Karolyn’s journey on Caring Bridge, at www.caringbridge.org/visit/karolynbarrett.
She takes it a day at a time and tries to find one positive thing in every day.
“It might be hard to find some nights, but you look for it and you find it,” Tammy said.
Sometimes after having a really rough day it’s Karolyn smiling at her and saying, ‘I love you.’
She said Karolyn has been very resilient and has a lot of spunk.
Although she missed some school, she completed kindergarten with her class this spring at Ramsey Elementary School.
Tammy said Karolyn’s teacher, Ms. Owen, was very supportive and helpful and Karolyn’s classmates showed a compassion that Tammy found remarkable.
“Her class was amazing. If they saw us coming in the morning, you’d hear the whole class yelling, ‘Karolyn’s here.’ They were so happy to see her every time,” Tammy said.
Owen has never had a student going through cancer treatment and said it was a learning experience for her.
“I truly appreciate what these poor little ones go through,” she said.
Owen said she often talked to her students about Karolyn. She could check the Caring Bridge site daily so she was able to keep the students in the loop.
“There was always talk about, ‘What was Karolyn doing today?’” Owen said.
Also, a representative from Children’s Hospital came to the school and explained what Karolyn was going through. That helped the students understand that chemotherapy was a good thing because it was what it took to make Karolyn healthy, Owen said.
She describes Karolyn as a go-getter.
“She’s just like a little Energizer Bunny,” Owen said.
She said Karolyn is “smart as a whip,” one of the top readers in the class and grasps concepts quickly. She also made a lot of very good friends in her class.
“She’s truly a trooper,” Owen said.
Tammy, meanwhile, looks forward to their lives returning to more normalcy in the coming year with the worst of the treatment behind them.
Longer-term, Tammy and Mike’s dreams for their daughter are simple: They just want her to be healthy and happy and appreciative of the little things in life.
She likes dancing, cooking, coloring and monkeys
One day this past week, Karolyn was sitting on the couch watching TV with her brother, Tommy, 8.
She wore a fluffy white fur vest over her T-shirt and was munching on dill pickles.
In many ways, she remains a typical little girl. She loves to dance, color and cook. She’s quite fond of monkeys.
She also is excited about the upcoming Relay For Life. She said her favorite parts of the Relay are the face painting and the games.
Her mother said her kids also like to have their hair spray painted at the Relay, but Karolyn has lost her hair due to the cancer treatments.
“They could paint her head,” her brother, Tommy, suggested helpfully.
Tammy will say a few words at the Relay For Life this year and Karolyn will walk the survivor’s walk. Cancer survivors walk the first lap around the track as teams participating in the event clap and cheer.
Karolyn is very excited to walk the survivor’s walk, her mother said. “It will be emotional but a great feeling to see her walk in that lap,” Tammy said.
About the Relay For Life
• The Elk River Relay For Life kicks off Friday, Aug. 5. Here is the schedule, according to Jan Moeser, Relay team development. The opening ceremony is at 7 p.m. and a luminary lighting ceremony is at dusk (approximately 9:30 or 10 p.m.). There will be a spaghetti eating contest at 9 p.m. courtesy of Buca di Beppo in Maple Grove. There also will be food for sale, including gourmet cupcakes. The Relay For Life is open to the public and will be held at the Elk River High School athletic field, 900 School St. The event ends with a closing ceremony at 6 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 6.
• The Nowthen Lions will host a survivor’s reception Friday, Aug. 5 as part of the Relay For Life. Registration starts at 5 p.m. and the reception begins at 6 p.m. All cancer survivors are welcome to attend.
• Relay For Life is the American Cancer Society’s signature activity. It offers everyone an opportunity to participate in the fight against cancer. Teams of people take turns walking or running around the Elk River High School track throughout the night. Each team is asked to set a fund-raising goal.
• There are 23 teams signed up to participate in the Relay For Life in Elk River this year, including “Carolyn’s” and “Little Karolyn’s” Team, made up of some of Karolyn Barrett’s family members and friends.
•For more information about the Elk River Relay For Life, go to http://main.acsevents.org/site/TR?pg=entry&fr_id=29976