Seven-year-old Olivia Hansen and little sister Elle explored a Florida beach this week while hunting sea shells, blissfully unaware of the dark clouds swirling over their futures.
The Olathe girls also toured the Magic Kingdom and paused with their parents for a touristy photo near Cinderella Castle.
The quickly arranged trip came courtesy of Sporting Kansas City’s newest philanthropic endeavor, Sporting Wishes, a program for children battling cancer for a second, third or even fourth time. It fills a need for children facing life-threatening illnesses who already received a granted wish from programs like the Dream Factory and Make-A-Wish Foundation, which approve only one wish per child, no matter which charity provided it.
Yet sometimes, children survive a life-threatening illness only to relapse months or years later, often into a situation where their odds plummet even more.
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Sporting Wishes is designed to give those families some light during a very dark time, said Brandi Thomas, a Sporting Kansas City spokeswoman. The team and its philanthropic arm, The Victory Project, launched the program in collaboration with Children’s Mercy Hospital.
The program’s first wish went to the Hansens, who returned Thursday from Florida.
The trip marked perhaps the last time that first-grader Olivia will feel good enough to enjoy doing kid things with her kid sister.
First diagnosed with an aggressive cancer when only 17 months old, Olivia has experienced just one cancer-free birthday, at age 1.
Four years ago, after Olivia’s first relapse at age 3, the Dream Factory arranged a family trip to Disney World. Doctors estimated her survival time at two months. But chemotherapy and radiation beat back the alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma tumors growing in her brain and spine.
So much time has passed since then that Olivia doesn’t remember that wish trip.
Now, the cancer has exploded inside the little girl who loves unicorns, dolls and dressing like a princess. Tumors are in her brain, spine, arm, both hips and a leg.
After Olivia’s parents learned that news March 3, they signed up with a home health/hospice group for pediatrics.
“They are really great and the program seems great, but I am not great,” Olivia’s mother, Margaret Hansen, posted that day on a Facebook account called Team Olivia. “I still cannot believe this is real. …
“This news is devastating to us, and we have been trying to swallow the information and determine what to do next.”
Children’s Mercy nurse practitioner Joy Bartholomew discussed with Olivia’s parents their immediate options: Take a second wish trip or resume chemotherapy, something Olivia already had endured dozens of times.
“Olivia’s never going to feel better than she does right now,” Bartholomew told them. “One dose isn’t going to make a difference.
The trip would be valuable for Elle as well, Bartholomew said. It could give her quality “sissy” time with a sister she likely won’t have much longer.
At Children’s Mercy, perhaps two dozen families a year must cope with news that their child’s cancer has returned, or a new one has appeared, said Thomas with Sporting KC.
“Our goal going into this was, we would do one (wish) a month,” Thomas said. “But in the first month, we’ve received four nominations. If that is any indication, it will be quite a few more.”
The number granted will depend on the funds raised, she said.
Starting during Saturday’s home opener against FC Dallas, anyone making a purchase at a Sporting KC team store at Children’s Mercy Park can add $1, $5 or even $100 to their payment, with 100 percent of that going to the Wishes program. In addition, the club will have other fundraising events.
Bartholomew, the nurse who works in Children’s Mercy’s hematology and oncology clinic, sees many possibilities.
“What we often are challenged with is kids pick their wish too soon,” she said.
For example, one cancer patient asked for his own home basketball court and got it — then never achieved remission while continuing to fight the cancer for two years.
“Now his wish (the basketball court) is more like a poke in the eye every time he looks at it,” Bartholomew said.
Or consider the teenager granted a clothes shopping spree. Then she gained 20 pounds after going on steroids and couldn’t wear the clothes.
Under rules followed by other wish programs, neither child qualifies for a new wish.
When Olivia first developed cancer, she was too young to be considered.
Olivia’s mother felt a lump in one of Olivia’s legs in March 2011, when the toddler was 16 months old.
The cancer diagnosis, which came the next month, spurred 58 weeks of chemotherapy and 28 days of radiation just to get Olivia into remission the first time.
She experienced seven months without cancer before the battle began anew against what her mother calls those “stupid tumors.”
Her mother’s Facebook entries detail a journey that no child should have to endure: tests, needles, chemo, hair loss, brain radiation, leg radiation, groin radiation, headaches, pain, dizziness, nausea, a scary seizure, multitudes of missed school events and endless requests for prayers among all the dark clouds and dreary days.
Sunshine appears now and then, such as in November.
“Today is Olivia’s 7th birthday! Woo Hoo! She made it,” Mom wrote then. “She was not expected to live to see her 4th, 5th, 6th or 7th birthdays and look at her now! …
“Her birthdays to me are so special. They are a celebration of strength, courage and bravery. … She has taught me how to live each moment and be present with each other, and to not take anything for granted. We are blessed by her kindness and love every day!”
After Olivia suffered a seizure in February, Children’s Mercy fitted her for a special mask in preparation for full brain radiation. They also made a mask for her stuffed friend, Coco Bear, in case he needed radiation, too.
“We are sick with worry,” her mom wrote as the family awaited results of new scans. “That is actually really an understatement of how we feel. It’s terrifying.”
Before the results came back, Mom found a way to let Olivia experience her biggest dream: meeting a real unicorn.
A small white one, complete with a horn, walked into their house in late February, courtesy of Half-Pint Heroes, an organization that uses miniature horses for therapy.
Olivia stroked its mane and posed for photos alongside the horse-turned-unicorn for a day.
“OK, it wasn’t real, but to Olivia it was!” her mother wrote. “She has been dreaming of a real white unicorn for so long now. … The experience was hands down Olivia’s biggest dream.”
Not long after that, Olivia received a battery-powered pink car. She zoomed down the street in it before racing indoors to make herself a driver’s license.
A few days later, Olivia spent the day at Children’s Mercy getting those scans that revealed the cancer’s spread.
The family already had been talking with Sporting Wishes. With this news, the Magic Kingdom wheels turned faster. Soon, the Hansens boarded a plane headed southeast.
“I feel like we have now gotten her big wishes completed, with the unicorns and now the car, and this trip to Disney,” her mother wrote before leaving. “I hope that her health remains stable while we are away. … Our pace will definitely be slower than the average family while we are there, and we will let Olivia determine how much we can or cannot do each day. …
“We haven’t told her or Elle the news of Olivia’s health. I don’t think it’s the right time just yet. Probably when we return from our trip, we will have to have some tough conversations.”
At Disney World, Olivia met princesses, received VIP treatment and enjoyed many rides, especially Splash Mountain.
At Cocoa Beach, she played along the shore and collected shells and sand to lug home.
When the family returned to Olathe on Thursday, they found that their neighbors had all changed their porch lights to pink, the color that represents cancer awareness. And Olivia’s classmates had decorated their driveway with chalk.
Friday morning, Olivia was back at Children’s Mercy, fighting cancer again.
Many families, battling medical bills and medication costs, often are too financially drained to arrange such a trip, Margaret Hansen said.
Yet it’s really special, as a family, to make a child’s wishes come true.
“It was truly priceless to our family,” Hansen said.
“We also feel so honored to be the first family to receive a second wish. We hope it works out for many more families to have a second wish in the future.”