Jen Loos’ 5-year-old daughter had a limp, then a fever. Next came the hospital tests.
Doctors thought it might be arthritis. Then came the diagnosis. Rhyan Loos had stage-four neuroblastoma, a cancer of the adrenal glands that often affects children.
“As we were sitting in that waiting room, when we thought it was arthritis, we’re thinking that was the worst thing possible,” Jen Loos said. “Now that we’re going through cancer, I would take arthritis in a heartbeat.
“I honestly don’t know how that day we were able to pick ourselves up off of the floor and go in that room with Rhyan.”
Mizzou Arena will hold more than a game Saturday when the Missouri and Tennessee men’s basketball teams tip off at 2 p.m. It will become the epicenter for a community’s outpouring of affection for Rhyan, the daughter of Tigers assistant coach Brad Loos.
In Rhyan’s honor, Missouri is offering a free general admission ticket Saturday to any fan making a donation to pediatric cancer research. They’re calling it the “#RallyForRhyan Game,” borrowing from a popular hashtag supporting the Loos family.
“I’m hoping people will come and they’ll donate, wear their gold and let’s do something really good,” said Missouri coach Kim Anderson, who has had Brad Loos on his staff in all 14 seasons he’s been a head coach, first at Central Missouri and now Mizzou.
“This is about more than basketball. This is about a little girl’s life. It’s about a lot of kids’ lives.”
Brad Loos didn’t worry much when Rhyan developed a limp in late August. “What 5-year-old doesn’t get limps?” he said Monday.
By early October, Rhyan’s limp became very pronounced, bad enough that her kindergarten teacher brought it to Jen’s attention.
Just to be safe, she took Rhyan to the doctor, who found no physical reason for her limp. Jen was told to monitor Rhyan and let the doctor know if she developed a fever. That night, Rhyan had a low-grade fever.
“One thing led to another and the next thing you know, we’re seeing a specialist about arthritis,” Brad said.
Rhyan was hospitalized at MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital for a battery of tests. Initially, the diagnosis was leukemia, then bone cancer. Finally, neuroblastoma was discovered on the adrenal gland above her kidney.
Within a day or two, Rhyan, a kindergartener at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School in Columbia, started chemotherapy. She remained hospitalized for two weeks and has endured four more rounds.
“It was tough on us as parents just to see your kid go through that and not really be able to do anything to help her,” Brad Loos said.
Anderson offered Brad Loos leave and got NCAA permission to add an assistant to his game-day staff, but Brad coaches practices as often as he can and travels for Mizzou games. Rhyan even accompanied the team to Texas A&M last month.
But Brad has been changed through this experience.
“I don’t react the same way to losses this year as I did last year,” he said. “Winning and losing is important. Don’t get me wrong. It’s what we do. It’s our job. But at the end of the day, your family, your children — that’s what’s really important.”
After last Saturday’s loss at Alabama, for instance, rather than ruminate and study film, Loos went home to tuck his children into bed and steal goodnight kisses. Brad and Jen Loos also have a son, Brady, 6, and a younger daughter, Charli, 2.
It’s also brought perspective to the Tigers’ players, who met Rhyan several times during team functions last summer, before she was diagnosed.
“If you met Rhyan, you would understand that she’s just a ball of energy, always kind of the center of attention,” senior forward Ryan Rosburgsaid. “Whether we were at team dinners or she was just at the arena hanging out, she’s always smiling and had a smile on her face. When we heard the news, it was difficult.”
Rhyan’s fight has also put losing in perspective for the players. Missouri is 8-16 and 1-10 in the Southeastern Conference, having lost nine consecutive games.
“Obviously, we’re down about losing, but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” freshman guard Terrence Phillips said. “We have nothing to feel sorry for. We have a little girl fighting for her life, and we’ve got to keep her in our thoughts and prayers.”
Jen Loos attended a Valentine’s Day party Tuesday, Rhyan’s first day back at kindergarten after she finished her fifth and final round of chemo last week.
“She doesn’t get a break,” Brad Loos said of his wife. “She does this 24/7. My daughter won’t let her go 10 feet from her.”
Rhyan’s mother is always with her — in the hospital, at home and even during school.
“She always has to put on that strong face and she always has to let Rhyan not see any cracks in the armor …” Brad Loos said. “Her toughness has just been amazing. I knew my wife was tough going into this, but I had no idea how tough. She’s been an inspiration to me.”
Rhyan still faces surgery to remove the original tumor on her kidney. That’s to take place March 2 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
As is typical in neuroblastoma cases, the cancer metastasized before it was discovered, taking root in Rhyan’s bone marrow and infiltrating her bloodstream. She also has spots on her upper femur and hip, which will be treated with radiation after surgery.
“I don’t think she truly understands exactly what cancer is,” Jen Loos said. “We’ve tried hard to keep it simple, because she doesn’t need to know details. Basically, we’ve explained that there’s a sickness in her body and we have to take her to get medicine. Even though it’s making you feel yucky, that just means it’s fighting inside your body. We use ‘yucky’ a lot, because she’s 5.”
Rhyan’s bone scan Wednesday clear, a good sign treatment is working. She has more tests scheduled next week.
“I can’t say that I would handle it anywhere as close to as well as she has,” Brad Loos said. “She’s a little soldier. She doesn’t like it, and she let you know she doesn’t like it, but she deals with it and she gets through it.”
Brad Loos said the family appreciates the chance to raise awareness for pediatric cancer, which he says is underfunded because there aren’t many cases. Around 700 children each year are diagnosed with neuroblastoma, which represents 6 percent of all pediatric cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I can’t say thank you enough to the athletic department and to the university for allowing us to do this …” Brad Loos said. “It’s huge, not only for Rhyan, but to just raise awareness for pediatric cancer research.”
Based on a Twitter search, the earliest reference to #RallyForRhyan appears to be a Twitter post by Ryan Bradley, Missouri’s senior associate athletic director of strategic communications, at 8:51 p.m. Oct. 9.
The hashtag actually was the brainchild of Patrick Crawford, the Tigers’ assistant director of strategic communications for men’s basketball andmen’s golf. He posted from the official Mizzou basketball account within minutes of Bradley’s post. #RallyForRhyan spread from there within the Missouri community and beyond.
“The next thing you know, it’s nationwide and it just so happened to coincide with a lot of people’s team pictures,” Brad Loos said. “A lot of people started holding up the #RallyForRhyan in team pictures and it kind of became a thing. It’s neat to see the effect that a 5-year-old girl can have on so many people in such a short period of time.”
The Park Hill girls basketball team had a “pink out” in Rhyan’s honor, small businesses announced benefits, former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan expressed his support, the Central Missouri community reached out and other teams from coast to coast flooded social media with support for the family.
A friend from Warrensburg set up a “Rally for Rhyan” Facebook page, where people can keep updated on her fight and learn more about pediatric cancer.
“It’s unfortunate that it has to happen, but there has been a lot of good that came along with it,” Brad Loos said. “She’s brought up a lot of awareness and a lot of attention to a cause that really needs it.”