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Facing Pain With Laughter : Girl, 6, Braves Incurable Cancer, Inspires Mother Fighting to Cope

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kelly Evans is an exuberant 6-year-old who loves cartoons and silly songs. Her high-pitched giggles make people around her smile, but the laughter does little more than mask her uncontrollable stomach pain.

For three years, Kelly has battled rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer that attacks the muscles. Doctors at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana say Kelly’s cancer has now spread to her liver, and that even with a new round of chemotherapy begun last week, she may have at most three months to live.

Kelly knows something is wrong but still tries to attend first grade at Vessels Elementary School in Cypress, plays with Barbie dolls and dreams of becoming a doctor.

Cancer care-givers say her case is particularly touching because of the toll the disease has taken on Kelly and her family.

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“Kelly has been a real fighter throughout her battle with cancer beyond what most people could even possibly imagine,” said Linda Silverman, an oncology social worker at Western Medical.

“She is in a single-parent family where her mother has two other children and no job. This is a sign of the times we’re living in,” Silverman said. “We know there are a lot of other people in need and in similar pain but this is a very special circumstance. We think Kelly and her family, who have touched our hearts, represent a symbol of strength, resilience and hope for other families.”

Western Medical has set up a fund to raise money for Kelly’s family so her mother can pay bills and buy Christmas gifts, Silverman said. And staff members at Cigna Health Care of Orange have raised about $400.

One of Kelly’s doctors, Csaba Mera, said rhabdomyosarcoma is rare and incurable. It attacks only three to four children per million and accounts for 4% to 8% of all childhood cancers, he said.

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“It can grow anywhere muscle tissue grows and the pain comes in the form of sharp intestinal cramps,” Mera said. “In spite of all the horrendous pain, chemotherapy and radiation Kelly’s been through, she’s coping quite well. She’s really a neat kid.”

One recent evening, the 40-pound girl sat on her mother’s lap as a pair of plastic tubes carried Neupogen into a hole in her chest. The drug is used to raise her white blood cell count, and it is pumped from a Walkman-sized box that she wears strapped around her shoulder like a purse.

“It kills my cancer,” Kelly said of the medicine.

Kelly’s mother, Leslie Evans, 36, listens to her daughter with a heavy heart. When she’s alone, she says, she cries, thinking about how this Christmas may be Kelly’s last.

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“The hardest part is seeing her in pain because there’s nothing I can do about it,” Evans said. “I can’t take away the pain that is only going to get worse. I feel like I have a huge hole in my heart that’s never going to close.”

Divorced and with two other children, Evans lives with her parents.

Harry Tubbs, Kelly’s grandfather, has begun dipping into his retirement fund to help make ends meet. And Kelly’s grandmother, Gloria Tubbs, took a job as a secretary to contribute.

Evans receives unemployment compensation, but those checks will stop on Christmas day. After that she’ll be down to the monthly child support she receives from her ex-husband, Martin Evans. Most of Kelly’s medical bills are being paid by her father’s medical insurance, but her mother must still cover about $200 a month for doctor visits, prescriptions and other medical supplies.

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“It’s desperation at this point,” Evans said. “All the continual medical expenses, not being able to find a job and going back and forth to the hospital is an increasing strain. All our savings accounts are gone, my credit cards are maxed and I’ve borrowed so much money.

“But, I know that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, so something good will come out of this.”

Last year, Kelly’s case was recognized by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted her wish to go to Walt Disney World in Orlando.

“That was fun,” Kelly said, staring at the angel ornaments hanging from a small plastic Christmas tree set up in her grandparents’ home. “I like the angels. They make me feel happy.”

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Evans said she is trying to forget her financial problems for now so she can concentrate on spending time with Kelly and her two other children: Andrea, 11, and Ian, 9.

When Kelly’s pain subsides enough for her to attend school, her mother walks her to class.

“We crunch the leaves in our hands along the way,” Evans said, fighting back tears. “We’ve crushed leaves for more than a year but it’s just so much more meaningful now.

“She knows what she has is bad but she’s pretty tough about it. . . . She’s really made me appreciate life and all the little things.”

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Anticipating the death of a child “must be one of the most devastating things a family can face,” Western Medical’s Silverman said. “All the Evans’ hardships must be very, very taxing, especially with the holidays approaching. It’s a heartbreaking situation but the love, support and strength that they have for each other have been inspirational.”

Western Medical officials say contributions can be sent to the Kelly Evans Christmas Fund, Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, 1301 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana 92701.


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