Dance Marathon 2-year-old's fight with cancer inspires hope


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With a count of three, she falls back, fearless. The pillows catch her with a bounce, and she leaps back up. This time, she counts faster. Her grandmother stands close, arms ready to catch, but little Ellie Capaldo isn’t worried.

She doesn’t even realize she is sick.

Technically, she has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer. But at only 2 years old, she fights with a fire that gives hope to those around her.

“I can’t say enough about the resiliency of children, even young children,” said her father, Nick Capaldo. “To think about everything they are going through, and yet — they’ve got a smile on their face. Every day is a new day. All they want to do is run around and play. They don’t care if they’ve got a line and a pole attached to them with chemo running in it. They don’t care. It’s beautiful, really.”

Around the last Fourth of July, the Capaldos’ lives changed in a flash. They walked into the emergency room carrying a 20-month-old they thought struggled under the weight of dehydration. But they left with the “C” word hanging in the air.

“They already had her hooked up to IVs, so they called an ambulance and took us up to Iowa City that night,” said Amanda Capaldo, Ellie’s mother.

Nick Capaldo followed behind as Amanda Capaldo and Ellie traveled to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital looking for an official diagnosis of what the ER doctor thought was cancer.

“[It was the] longest ride ever,” Amanda said. “My nerves were shot. It was terrible. It just seemed like forever. Just seeing her lying there, strapped down, and not knowing — the fear of everything — took a toll on me.”

The diagnosis came the following day — and treatment began immediately.

“Words can hardly even express how you feel,” said Cindy Capaldo, Nick’s mother and Ellie’s grandmother. “You feel empty.”

Even though they never thought one of their children would be diagnosed with cancer, they were thankful the doctor found it.

“I remember looking at the doctor and saying, ‘Well, as much as I don’t want to say I hope you’re wrong, I hope you’re wrong, and this is something else. But if you’re right, thank you,’ ” Nick Capaldo said.

Through the journey, Ellie has touched the lives of those who hold her close.

“She’s taught me to be a lot stronger and take everything day-to-day because you never know what’s going to be thrown at you,” Amanda Capaldo said.

Today, the Capaldo family is taking each moment as it comes, holding close what matters most.

“I always like to tell everybody that I have the three Fs — my faith, family, and friends,” Amanda Capaldo said.

Their definition of family grew with the time spent at the UI Children’s Hospital to include other families going through treatment and the network of Dance Marathon.

“People have reached out to us, and we’ve reached out to other people, and it’s just — it’s like you say: It’s not a family you want to be part of, but once you’re part of it, it’s a pretty close-knit family,” Nick Capaldo said.

Some days are tougher than others but they always push forward.

“Amanda and I both at our own time have our own moments with everything, where it gets so overwhelming you just want to sit in the corner and cry,” Nick Capaldo said. “And then 20 minutes later you feel like you can take on the world. You’re dealing with everything you’re dealing with, and you don’t know how you’re doing it, but you’re doing it. It’s OK.”

For Amanda Capaldo, the hardest part came when she had to tell Ellie’s 5-year-old sister, Addison, that Ellie was sick.

“That was probably the hardest part for me, to tell her, because when I was younger I lost my mom to cancer,” she said. “She knows that her Grandma Florence is in heaven, and she knows why. So it took me awhile to get up the courage to tell her because she asked, ‘Mommy, is Sissy going to go to heaven?’ ”

After nearly seven months into the two-and-a-half year treatment, the prognosis is promising.

“We still have our granddaughter, and the projection is we get to keep our granddaughter,” said Don Capaldo, Nick Capaldo’s father and Ellie’s grandfather.

Unless someone is aware of Ellie’s diagnosis, it is difficult to tell she is even sick.

“I know she’s really sick, but I also know she’s still my ornery little 2-year-old who runs through the house, plays with her sister, and doesn’t like to share toys,” Amanda Capaldo said.

To her loved ones, Ellie is an inspiring pillar of strength.

“When you look at her, you don’t see cancer,” said Rachel Barnes, a close family friend.  “You see hope.”

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