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June 4, 2014

Brookwood fights childhood cancer with McKinley

McKinley Kersey is 9. This past year she was a fourth-grader at Brookwood Elementary. And she is a cancer survivor.

After suffering stomach pains last summer, McKinley underwent X-rays and ultrasounds, and not long after, she was sent immediately to the Children’s Hospital at Erlanger in Chattanooga where they performed CT scans and placed her in the intensive care unit.

McKinley’s parents learned that their daughter had Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Officials, staff and students at Brookwood Elementary have been doing all they can to fight the disease along with her. They’ve coordinated events and fundraisers to both raise money for McKinley and raise awareness of childhood cancer.

This is not Brookwood’s first time helping raise awareness in honor of a student battling cancer. The first efforts began back when one of the students, Kimberly Ochoa, was fighting leukemia. Brookwood students raised money to help with Kimberly’s medical costs, and also found ways to talk to her while she was in the hospital using electronic devices and Skype.

Kimberly passed away on July 16, 2012, and Brookwood helped get a tree planted in Civitan Park to honor her and all other children who face cancer.

“We once again renewed our ‘fight childhood cancer’ campaign even bigger,” said Brookwood Principal Celeste Martin when McKinley was diagnosed.

The staff at Brookwood got together and made her a goody bag filled with snacks, gift cards and other things to keep her occupied while in the hospital.

During last year’s Dalton High homecoming parade, fourth- and fifth-grade Girl Scouts from Brookwood rode on a float dedicated to “paint out childhood cancer” that displayed a large yellow ribbon for childhood cancer.

“That was a really big deal,” McKinley’s mom, Michelle, said of the float.

A jar was placed in the Brookwood front office so students could contribute to the Sunny 92.3 Cure Kids Cancer Radiothon, and McKinley had the opportunity to go live on air on Sunny 92.3 in December. She spoke about what it was like to have treatments and encouraged people to call in.

The students at Brookwood raised $325 for the radiothon. The money will go to the cancer clinic at Children’s Hospital and will go towards family assistance, research and equipment.

The fourth- and fifth-grade Girl Scouts also began a T-shirt sale. When the sale was done, around $1,000 was presented to the Kerseys to help pay for McKinley’s medical bills.

McKinley’s own Girl Scout troop put together a lemonade and Girl Scout cookie booth to help raise money for childhood cancer awareness.

Brookwood also set up Lions for a Cure where students made items and sold them to get enough money to buy iPads. The iPads will be going to the Children’s Hospital’s Cancer/Chemo unit so patients can use them while they are undergoing treatments. Lions for a Cure was originally a plan to help Esme Miller, a Westwood student also diagnosed with cancer, but Brookwood students and staff decided it would be better to spread the wealth to even more kids.

“I am sincerely humbled and honored that our students are working so passionately to raise awareness for childhood cancer and helping to combat this dreadful disease,” said Martin, whose father died last May after a battle with cancer. “I have seen firsthand what the efforts and contributions of others can do to support a family in their time of need.”

“I was in disbelief,” her mother said of when McKinley was diagnosed. “I was just numb to it all. It is so hard and out of nowhere. It was so scary and terrible, but we were confident from the info we received from doctors.”

McKinley’s form of cancer of the lymphatic system is extremely rare — her mother said there are only around 300 known cases of Burkitt’s in North America.

Burkitt’s is also an extremely fast-growing cancer that can appear within days.

There, however, is a positive note to this type of cancer diagnosis — there is a 92 percent cure rate with Burkitt’s lymphoma.

McKinley started her IV chemo treatment on the day of her ninth birthday, and she underwent four treatments of chemo — each session lasted 5-7 days.

“It was scary and hard,” McKinley said of her treatment.

“You put on a happy face for your child whether you want to or not,” said Michelle Kersey. “You dig in and do it. It was a long and difficult summer.”

In early September, after 52 days in treatment, the Kerseys received word that McKinley was in remission. She is now finished with both therapy and chemo treatments.

“I felt relief,” Michelle Kersey said. “But I’m still nervous and scared. It was cancer, and it doesn’t always follow the rules. I’m thankful and blessed she beat it in three months of treatment.”

McKinley, who missed the first nine weeks of school battling her disease, said she is so happy and thankful for all Brookwood has done for her.

“I have no idea what I can say,” McKinley said of all the support she has gotten from Brookwood and the community. “They’ve all been so supportive through this. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.”

Even though McKinley got to FaceTime with her class while she was away, she said she was happy to finally see everyone in person.

“I missed my friends and all the teachers,” McKinley said of her Brookwood family.

“They made signs and banners and held a party for her when she got back. It was really sweet,” said Michelle Kersey.

Michelle Kersey said everyone at Brookwood deserves to be recognized for how amazing they have been to McKinley and the rest of the Kerseys — including McKinley’s younger brother, Jack, who is also at Brookwood — during difficult times.

“I want to say a huge thank you for all the love and support they have shown to McKinley and our family. They made a difficult time much easier,” she said.

“I think these experiences and this work have brought about an appreciation of life that we so easily take for granted,” Martin said. “These students have also been able to see that their contributions do make a difference for others regardless of their age. It has empowered them to cherish life and dream big.”

For fellow kids who are currently dealing with cancer, McKinley has this advice: “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. It’s hard, but then you’ll feel great.”

Said McKinley about her now beaten cancer: “I’m glad that it’s gone, and it’s going to be gone. I feel good and strong and everything.”

McKinley also spoke about her “Cancer Piñata” that was at the No More Cancer Carnival that the Kerseys held in October.

Said McKinley: “My friend made the piñata. It was green for lymphoma and it was made to look like a monster. I beat it at the carnival. I beat the stuffing out of it.”

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