Cancer survivor shares story

As a child of two years, junior Katie Murphy remembers singing “no more monkeys jumping on the bed” while she jumped on a bed of her own, in a room of her own with a TV of her own. Murphy did not realize the seriousness of her situation; all she could see was the excitement in the break from her routine.

However, her family was distraught with the bad news that she had one of the more common types of childhood cancer: acute lymphocytic leukemia. Murphy was diagnosed only a couple days before Christmas.

“I had been out sledding with my uncle and my sister, and when I got home, my mom noticed that there were some bruises all over my legs and she just thought ‘Oh that’s from sledding and normal kids stuff,’ but my grandma insisted that because I had had a cold that they take me to the doctor,” she said.

Murphy’s mother, Brenda Murphy said she was very worried in the beginning and said she would treatment right away.

“I wondered how much time I had left with her because I knew cancer at that time was like a death sentence,” Brenda said.

Dealing with treatment
Between the ages of three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half, Murphy was in and out of the UW Children’s Hospital in Madison for treatments. Murphy lived in Beaver Dam and remembers very little about her trips and treatments.

“I have a few scattered memories of being in the hospital,” she said.

For six to eight months, Murphy underwent initial treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. While she doesn’t recall the chemo, she does remember an anecdote about the radiation treatment that brought light to the fact that even though she had cancer, she was still a child at heart.

“What happens is they make a mold of your body … you had to lay in it so that you didn’t move around when they did the radiation … and then at the end of treatment, I took it home and used it as a sled,” Murphy said.

Mostly Murphy recalls the fun stories of child-like innocence during her experience with something so serious. Yet Murphy said she still knew something very serious was going on because of how her family members acted around her and how they acted when she was in the hospital.

“I lost all my hair too with the radiation treatments and it didn’t phase me at all,” she said. “My mom said that I just pulled it out in clumps and I thought it was funny … whereas she was to the point of crying because my curly hair was falling out in clumps.”

She said one of the first times she realized something was wrong with her was when she went swimming. Murphy said she had a Hickman catheter, which she called her buddy because the nurses would put shots of medication in the catheter instead of in her vein. The Hickman catheter had to be taped up when she went swimming so that it wouldn’t get wet and cause infection, she said.

“I didn’t know anything was wrong with me otherwise until someone else … would point it out,” Murphy said. “You go swimming and you had to tape-up the buddy. As a three-year-old, I didn’t really know why this was happening, of course, or what was going on.”

Murphy continued through her treatments of radiation therapy, chemotherapy and spinal taps as a young child, slowly understanding what was happening to her, she said.

She said she came to know this routine in and out of the hospital as her childhood and didn’t think anything of it. However, as she grew older she began to understand and mature quickly.

Murphy recalls other children who were at the hospital and said she was never really afraid of the hospital, because her family was always bringing her fun items to play with and take out her frustrations on such as squirt guns she would squirt the nurses with.

I didn’t really know what was happening, of course, or what was going on.”
Katie Murphy
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia Survivor

Five years after treatment, by age nine, Murphy was deemed unofficially cured for having been five years out of treatment with no relapse. When she first heard the news, Murphy and her family were very excited, she said.

Giving back – festive style
It was then, as a fourth grader, that Murphy decided she wanted to do something to give back to the kids that were still being treated. She said she created a fundraiser for the leukemia and lymphoma society.

“It started out as a backyard carnival and then turned into a carnival for kids,” she said.

Murphy organized a yearly event in her backyard where she sold tickets for 25 cents each to play games such as duck pond or ring toss.

“She would come up with the ideas, she was so organized, she had a little notebook,” Brenda said.

The donations and the proceeds would go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Numerous businesses donated prizes for the games and eventually people donated other games as well.

As the event continued throughout the years, even some who couldn’t attend would donate money to the cause, Murphy said.

A friend of Murphy’s from high school, Lindsay Shananquet, began to help with the carnival during it’s later years.

“I worked at it one year … it was a pretty big thing around town,” she said.

In its first year, the family raised $300. After its tenth and final year, during Murphy’s senior year in high school, the family had raised over $25,000.

“It was always amazing to me how much money we actually raised off of quarters,” Murphy said.

After high school, Murphy continued to stay active as a leukemia survivor when she was asked to emcee at a reunion called Kids With Courage on Nov. 29, 2003.

At this reunion, all treated children along with their families were invited for a day of entertainment, education and support where speakers such as Cindy Crawford, who lost her brother to leukemia, came to speak in support of leukemia victims.

“The reunion is every five years to celebrate life and to remember those that have passed,” Murphy said.

Looking ahead
According to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, about 30 percent of cancer in children ages one to 14 is leukemia. However, centers with specialized treatment of children have strong optimism because over the past 30 years, survival statistics have dramatically improved.

As a survivor, Murphy said she feels the experience shaped how she grew up and how she developed her personality.

She said she realizes how difficult it was growing up, but to see kids going through what she did seems surreal to her.

For that reason, she said she believes there was a reason she was diagnosed, that perhaps it happened so she would be able to reach out and give back to people.

“I feel that I like to do whatever I can to let everyone know that yes, it may be a terrible thing,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t have to be if you try to continue with a positive outlook and just know that anything is possible.”

– DJ Slater contributed to this article