Austin 7-year-old battles cancer

Published 4:32 pm Saturday, August 6, 2011

Anika Chesak, 7, has already seen her share of hardship having battled a rare form of cancer behind her right eye. She was honored Saturday night as an honorary chair for the Mower County Relay for Life. She pictured with her dad, Andy, from left, brother Andy, sister Ava and mother Sherry. - Eric Johnson/

Anika Chesak is one plucky seven-year-old, and one lucky cancer survivor.

She overcame rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that affects muscle tissue, last fall.

She went through six weeks of radiation and 42 weeks of chemotherapy. She traveled to Houston for treatment and suffered the typical side effects (including nausea) that other people get. And she did it with determination, part of the reason why she served as one of the honorary chairs of this year’s Relay For Life.

Email newsletter signup

“She just wanted to get better and play again,” said Anika’s mother, Sherry. “There was no question in her mind that she was going to get better.”

It all started in the fall of 2009, when Anika would get headaches and stomachaches in kindergarten. Sherry and Andy thought the headaches could be due to stress, since little Anika was starting kindergarten.

Yet, her right eye kept bothering her. Once she told her parents she had double vision, they knew it was time to go to the doctor.

“That was the indicator that we needed to go to Rochester,” Sherry said.

Anika underwent a CAT scan and an MRI at Mayo Clinic in November and doctors diagnosed her with sinusitis, which causes nasal passages to become inflamed and swollen. But that wasn’t Anika’s only problem. A short time after the scans, doctors gave her parents the bad news: She had a malignant, cancerous tumor behind her right eye.

“You don’t expect to go to the hospital and hear your kid has cancer,” Andy said.

Though Anika was five, she knew getting cancer wasn’t good. She asked Sherry a lot of tough questions, and it was Sherry’s job to explain to Anika that her cancer wasn’t like her great-grandmother’s, who died of lung cancer. Anika had a cancer normally found in children

“We explained that it was more curable,” Sherry said.

The race to cure Anika was on, and luckily the Mayo Clinic earned its reputation for speedy treatment. Anika was diagnosed on a Saturday, tested again and diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma the following Tuesday. She started chemotherapy that Friday afternoon, less than a week after uncovering her tumor.

“It seemed like forever to us at the time,” Sherry said. “If we weren’t at Mayo it would have been a lot longer.”

That week was hard for Anika’s parents. Andy spent every waking moment researching rhabdomyosarcoma, spending hours at the kitchen table reading to learn about the disease’s symptoms and variants. There were two types of the disease: one more treatable than the other.

“That was eating me up,” Andy said. “As a parent, you’re going ‘Which one is it? Which one is it?’”

Luckily, Anika had the more treatable type.

While she began chemotherapy immediately, Anika moved up to radiation treatment that December. Christmas came early for Anika’s brother Andy, 9, and Ava, 11, while Anika traveled to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to begin proton radiation therapy. From Dec. 21 to the beginning of February, Anika and Sherry spent six weeks at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston, near the cancer center.

By the time she began radiation treatment, her right eye was already swollen shut. At some points, Anika would only be home for one week out of every three during the year.

“I was scared for her,” Ava said.

Radiation treatment was the worst for Anika, according to Sherry. Anika had the same sort of side effects as other patients: She would get weaker and she lost all of her hair, but doctors always told Anika she was handling treatment better than other cancer patients. Doctors didn’t give her anesthesia when she would undergo the radiation as they figured she’d be able to take it, since she could lay still, in a special-fit plastic mask, for 20 minutes or more during the treatment.

“(That) was pretty tough for a 5-year-old,” Sherry said. “She was the youngest patient that they ever had that didn’t receive anesthesia.”

Yet the radiation treatment was tough on Anika. Her body temperature would rise and she’d have to stay at the hospital for several days at a time. She didn’t have much of an appetite. Since foods didn’t taste the same, Anika didn’t want to eat.

Yet the 42 weeks she spent on chemotherapy, including the six weeks of radiation, wasn’t all bad. There was plenty of fun activities for Anika, including Beads of Courage. Every time Anika would go through a treatment or get through a doctor’s visit in Houston, she would get a bead. Anika proudly displayed her bead chain Wednesday evening, showing off all 108 beads she received down south.

What’s more, Anika kept her rambunctious spirit throughout treatment. Though Anika would have to stay overnight for chemo treatments for up to a week for radiation setbacks, she’d be ready to go after about a day. But, that didn’t mean she could leave the hospital. Sherry still remembers running after Anika down the hospital halls while she played, pushing Anika’s IV bag for her.

“She showed so much bravery,” Sherry said.

The Chesaks had plenty of support from friends and family. When Anika first had to go to Texas, Andy’s co-workers at the engineering division of Hormel Foods Corp. donated frequent flier miles. When Andy would watch Andy Jr. and Ava, neighbors would stop by with meals. The meals continued when Sherry and Anika got back, as neighbors would watch for when Sherry had to work nights at Mayo Clinic.

That doesn’t even factor in the gifts. Anika and her siblings received so many hats, stuffed bears, clothes, toys and other gifts that the Chesaks had to give some of the presents away.

Anika completed the 42-week treatment last September, and thus far doctors say they’ve eliminated the cancer part of the tumor. The tumor still remains, but supposedly as scar tissue. Signs of the cancer remain, as Anika has poor vision in her right eye, seeing mostly shadows and light. That hasn’t stopped her from being a typical 7-year-old Southgate Elementary School student.

The biggest honor for Anika came when the Chesaks were asked over the winter to participate in this year’s Relay For Life as one of the honorary chairs. Anika was a little timid about going last year, but she walked in the survivor’s circle and is looking forward to going this year. She says it’s “good,” to be honored, but she’s still a little shy when it comes to talking about herself.

Anika won’t officially be clear until five years from now, as doctors can’t declare she’s in remission until then. Yet the Chesaks are optimistic, and Anika doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. She’s too busy going at 110 mph all the time, constantly playing with her siblings and being a kid.

“She’s making up for lost time,” her father Andy said.