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Community coming together to help young Eldersburg girl in fight against cancer

Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

About a month before her fourth birthday, in October 2019, Katie Renehan’s daughter, Abby, got a bad, migraine-like headache. Then, the young Eldersburg resident got another one. Katie’s pediatrician suggested she see an eye doctor, who sent them for an MRI, revealing a 4-centimeter tumor.

Just five days later, Abby had surgery at Children’s National Hospital in Washington. Even though 90% of the tumor was removed, Abby’s medical journey is far from over.

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When the members of the South Carroll Lioness Lions Club learned about Abby, they wanted to help. They are hoping the community will come together to assist Abby, who will turn 5 on Nov. 27. The club is sponsoring a “GotSneakers?” drive, which also helps children in third world countries in need of shoes.

“The Lions motto is ‘We Serve,’ and supporting Abby is important to our club because helping a child in need in our community is what we do — especially since childhood cancer is one of Lions Clubs International’s global causes,” said the club’s president, Martin Bonura. “One of our other global causes is the environment. With this sneaker collection we are able to support two of our global causes and help a child in our own community and others around the world.”

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Bonura’s wife Susan, a past club president, agreed.

“You can provide [Abby] with a birthday present of your wearable, usable athletic sneakers,” she said. “Old sneakers will be evaluated by “GotSneakers?” Those that are at the end of their life will be recycled. Shoes that can be cleaned and repurposed will find new life on the feet of children in need.”

Recycled sneakers are broken down into parts and repurposed to create and resurface playgrounds and sport courts, or into new shoes, insulation, carpet padding, and other uses.

The type of tumor Abby has, known as ATRT, is an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, a rare, aggressive tumor that generally strikes very young children. Renehan said the fact that Abby is little older than most who get it has been a blessing, because she was old enough for radiation.

Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

After her surgery, Abby had her stem cells harvested at Children’s National, followed by multiple courses of chemotherapy. Her weight drastically dropped to 33 pounds, but her continued joy in everyday things keeps her mom optimistic.

“In April, May and June, she would go once a month to get two new chemotherapy drugs on Thursday and Friday, and then get [her own] stem cells returned to her on a Monday,” Renehan said. “Then we would go home. By the weekend she would spike a fever and then we would be back in the hospital for a week, or until she recovered. She has had 14 hospital admissions and 91 overnight stays.”

In July and August, Abby had proton treatments to the tumor at the University of Maryland Proton Center.

“It’s a new type of radiation,” Renehan said. She was talking about pencil beam scanning, which, according to the University of Maryland website, is used for solid, localized tumors and protects the surrounding normal tissue. “Five days a week she would go under anesthesia and do the proton treatments.”

Speaking during Abby’s third week of oral chemotherapy, Renehan said Abby still has a happy spirit. She does virtual schooling on Wednesdays and Thursdays with Wesley Freedom Church. She loves Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets, dancing, reading books and grilled cheese sandwiches.

“Well, actually, I like to do letters on my board,” Abby said, of the things she likes best. “I like the dancing part because I can exercise. I want to be a doctor when I grow up, because doctors are really nice. Doctors help me and they really love me.”

Added Renehan: “She absolutely loves her doctors. She gets excited to go to the hospital, even though she knows she will get poked and prodded.”

There’s just one thing she hates — shots, including IVs.

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“She had a port that they put in in January and it got infected in June,” her mom shared. “All the pressure from the needle sitting on her chest made her skin cells break down and you could see straight into her port. It was awful. There was a hole where the skin broke down and dissolved, so they took the port out in August.

Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

"Now she has to get an IV when she goes in, and she absolutely hates that. But she is a tough cookie.”

Renehan shared how she had to give Abby daily shots after chemo to booster her white cell count. Abby called them flu shots.

“Well, I don’t like getting flu shots, though,” little Abby said.

Renehan said they are taking things one day at a time. She has not asked about her daughter’s prognosis. It’s easier that way.

“I do crafts, and I scrapbook everything for her. Sometimes she has trouble with short term memory, so when she is sleeping, I work on her scrapbook … something for her to look back on.”

During the April, May and June chemotherapy drugs, Abby could not be touched or hugged.

“She had to be bathed every six hours [during that time] because the chemo drug is secreted from the body in every way, even sweat. They couldn’t even put a sticker on her because the drug would come through her skin, cling to the sticker and burn her,” Renehan said. “It’s horrible when you see your daughter throwing up and you can’t hug her or comfort her. This happened every Thursday through Sunday night each time she had chemo. It was rough. Chemo is so toxic.”

During that spring chemo, Abby also got a feeding tube. She was vomiting and losing weight fast, but Renehan said she is finally eating again.

“We go through a lot of grilled cheese,” Mom said with a laugh. “For the past month I have not had to do a [tube] feed, but I use the feeding tube to put her chemo in, so she doesn’t have to taste it. She is up to 38 pounds now.”

The Lions Club offering aid means a lot to Renehan. In addition, Make-A-Wish has been in touch. Abby wanted to go to Disney World, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, Disney came off the list. Instead, they are building her Belle’s Reading Nook, a she-shed of sorts, featuring Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.”

“She loves reading books,” Renehan said of her daughter. “She has memorized so many and she ‘reads’ them to me. Even when she doesn’t remember it word for word, she knows the story and will tell it to me. It is one of her favorite things to do. If you saw her, you wouldn’t even know Abby is sick. She is the happiest little girl.”

Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Four-year-old Abby Cafiero Renehan at her home in Sykesville on Wednesday, Oct. 7. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

Christmas and Halloween are Abby’s favorite holidays. Top that off with a November birthday, and this should be her happiest time of year. Donating sneakers to the sneaker drive will help.

New athletic sneakers and sports cleats — never worn with or without tags — will earn $3 per pair. GotSneakers? will pay $1 per pair for used but still wearable athletic sneakers and sports cleats. They should be gently worn without holes, rips, or sole separations of any kind. They earn 25 cents per pair for used non-wearable, recyclable, athletic sneakers and sports cleats. (No boots, heels, sandals, dress shoes or single, non-paired athletic sneakers will be accepted.)

Funds earned by the sneaker drive will help with doctor and medication co-payments, and travel costs to Washington, where chemo medications are liquified, since pills are too large for Abby.

For more information, contact South Carroll Lioness Lions Club members: Kay Field at 410-795-2674, Sue Mykulyn at 570-617-6367, or Susan Bonura at 443-745-1281. Drop off available at 810 Fairfield Ave., Westminster; 1743 Deer Park Road, Finksburg; or 5910 Dale Drive, Eldersburg.

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