“It still almost feels like a dream.”
“I found out on Mother’s Day that it was cancer,” said Nicole. “It was in her liver and eating up her bones. It’s a lot for any human being at any age, let alone for a six-year-old.”
In the spring of 2020, six-year-old Leorah Hopper started throwing up uncontrollably. Despite efforts by her mother, Nicole Hopper, and her pediatrician to treat what they thought was a virus, she wasn’t getting better. The next day, Nicole’s instincts went into action. “It just didn’t feel right. As a mom, you try not to overreact, but I just wanted to get some peace of mind. So that Mother’s Day morning, she and I just went to the ER.”
Nicole and Leorah rushed to Makenna David Pediatric Emergency Center at Kentucky Children’s Hospital After an ultrasound, Leorah’s doctors found what seemed like an intussusception: a condition where the intestine telescopes in on itself. Dr. Sean Skinner, the general surgeon on duty that morning, performed an exploratory surgery to attempt to solve the issue—but found something much more serious.
“When we got into surgery and looked, you could feel and tell that there was a hard mass where the small intestine went into the large intestine. We removed some of it and alerted the oncology team,” said Dr. Skinner. The oncology department confirmed Dr. Skinner’s fears: Leorah had Burkitt lymphoma, a type of cancer.
Dr. Caryn Sorge, an oncologist from the DanceBlue Pediatric Hematology & Oncology Clinic, joined Leorah’s team to determine the extent of the cancer, and develop a plan for her treatment. An ultrasound of Leorah’s liver revealed more lesions, and further testing by a bone marrow extraction determined that Leorah’s bone marrow was 50% consumed with cancer. A concentration at that rate meant Leorah’s diagnosis wasn’t lymphoma: she had stage four Burkitt leukemia, and treatment had to begin as soon as possible.
After a week to recover from her initial surgery, Leorah began receiving intense chemotherapy through a port in her chest. She also had to undergo multiple lumbar punctures where the fluid around her brain and spinal cord was tested to look for any cancer. At every stage, Leorah followed her mom’s example, staying positive and involved in her own care.
“I really did want to go home,” said Leorah. “But I realized that I’m okay, but they still have quite a bit of things hooked up to me.”
“We gave her the information, and she appreciated that. She would ask questions to the doctors and nurses. She wanted to know what procedure was being done and what to expect before it,” said Nicole. “When Leorah began chemo, I was preparing to have one of the hardest conversations: Telling my six-year-old daughter who’s extremely girly and loves to dress up and all the fluffy princess dresses that she will lose her hair. She just smiled and shrugged her shoulders, and she said, ‘It’ll grow back. It’s okay.’”
“I think her family’s positive presence helped her persevere over all of the struggles that she had,” said Dr. Sorge. “It could have easily put her in a negative head space in terms of what she had to overcome, the things that we had to do and the things that she had to do. But it’s just so incredible. I think it’s just a testament to the support that she has from her family, and outside of her family.”
Two months after what was supposed to be a quick trip to the ER, Leorah was finally able to go home. Her cancer scans were clear, but she still had several months left of chemotherapy. The mother and daughter duo were met with family and friends at the pedway, including Leorah’s little sister cheering “You did it, you did it!”
After a few days at home, Leorah returned to the hospital, where she spent another few months completing her chemotherapy. On the night of her last round of chemo, her mom threw a glow party in her hospital room, complete with a disco ball and black light. Leorah’s care team joined the party, playing balloon toss, wearing glow bracelets, dancing with Leorah, and playing with glow paint.
“Our night nurse, Jon Smith, went above and beyond for Leorah,” said Nicole. “She painted a huge flowery masterpiece all over his head. Not only was he willing to do it, he was proud of it. We danced our hearts out. She was hooked up through her port with chemo going into her and still doing the floss dance move and just having a blast. And that’s who she is.”
Now that she’s done with chemo, Leorah is on the path back to full health. She is considered in remission, with follow-up appointments every six weeks to check for any signs of recurring cancer. “So far everything has been clean, and we feel strongly that it’s going to remain clean,” said Nicole. “It still almost feels like a dream. We’re going to make it through this. God’s got us.”