Dance Marathon: Family remains involved


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The members of the VanWey family still sport their matching Dance Marathon gear.

It’s been about half a year since 6-year-old Mikayla VanWey finished her final leukemia treatment.

But the family — both parents and all three kids — still plan to trek from Marion to Iowa City for this weekend’s “Big Event.”

Christie VanWey, Mikayla’s mother, said one of her favorite parts of Dance Marathon is its focus on entire families and not just patients.

“Not all organizations are like that,” she said. “In the beginning, it was hard on the boys when organizations would come and do these things for Mikayla. That’s hard because the whole family does go through [cancer]. But this is all about the family.”

The VanWey clan will shoot portraits of pediatric cancer patients and their siblings at the event this weekend for Flashes of Hope’s area chapter, which Brent and Christie VanWey started.

Today, Mikayla is a happy and healthy girl; she hides her eyes behind her brown locks, but a grin grows across her round face when she’s given the opportunity to show off photos of herself or model her painted nails. But almost three years ago, what VanWeys thought was a routine visit to the doctor’s office became a life-halting diagnosis.

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Doctors had assumed Mikayla was ill with strep throat. But they worried “something else” could be causing her pains.

It turned out to be “something else” — acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“It wasn’t the big scary C-word,” Brent VanWey said. “I think if she’d said, ‘It could be cancer,’ I would have lost it.”

The same day, they took Mikayla to the UI Hospitals and Clinics, where doctors confirmed the diagnosis. From the beginning of their first visit, Brent VanWey said, the UIHC staff was very comforting.

“When we walked onto the seventh floor, the nurses said, ‘Oh, you must be Mikayla. Come on back this way, we have your room ready,’ ” he said.

Mikayla’s form of leukemia damages the white blood cells, which are supposed to fight infection — leaving her susceptible to illness.

The first six months of treatment are the most intense. Two weeks are spent in the hospital, but almost all the rest is done on an out-patient basis, unless complications such as a fever or other illnesses arise.

Mikayla took oral chemo every day for two and a half years as well as steroids and medications to prevent other ailments.

“It was not yummy, was it?” Christie VanWey said, glancing to her daughter, coaxing a stone-faced shake-of-the-head.

Products of her treatment included mood swings, tantrums, and general crankiness.

“It’s not fun,” older brother Tyler, 11, chimed in while brother, Brenden, 8, offered a giggle.

Still, the family said Mikayla was determined to get better. She even audited her dosages each day to be sure her dad hadn’t measured the wrong amount of medicine.

“She didn’t get that she was different from anyone else,” Brent VanWey said. “She’d look at you and say, ‘How did you do this when you had cancer?’ ”

Mikayla finished her final treatment in June 2009. The first-grader doesn’t wince when detailing what she remembers of her illness: losing her hair, gaining weight from the steroids, and downing her “yucky” meds. But talking about the dancers who kept her company in the hospital brings tears to her 6-year-old eyes.

“My goal was to stay at the hospital for 10 more times [after my treatment was over],” she said, bluely. “They came in my room and played with me.”

The family identified the positives about Mikayla’s illness and treatment. Brent VanWey said the ailment taught him and his family many hard-learned lessons.

“It definitely wasn’t a fun treatment, but it has changed her for the better in so many ways,” he said. “This thing has changed every part of who [my kids] are.”

Mikayla’s battle is most likely over, but the VanWeys aren’t resting. Instead, they’re committed to lending help to their bigger family: the Dance Marathon family.

“We just do everything we can to be part of the family that supported us while we went through it and we look to try to give back and try to support them,” Brent VanWey said.

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