BROOKLAND, AR (KAIT) - Childhood cancer has become the "new normal" for many kids in Northeast Arkansas.
"A lot of times my patients will ask, This means I'm going to die, right?" said Doctor Joana Mack with Arkansas Children's Hospital. "It's just a new normal. No normal that we have ever experienced."
The chemotherapy, along with the side effects, distort children's lives drastically, like Chloe McGee's.
"Her blood work was all low," said Carma McGee, Chloe's mother. "So, they did blood work again and they were even lower. They called St. Jude and they told us to come up."
Chloe has leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, according to Mack.
When the 6-year-old's mother found out, her stomach dropped to the floor.
According to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, 175,000 children ages 14 and under worldwide are diagnosed with cancer each year.
Mack said hundreds fight the battle in Arkansas.
"We have about 100 newly diagnosed patients each year, from that 100, about 10 to 15 percent come from Northeast Arkansas," Mack said.
Chloe just started kindergarten. It is in Mrs. Ashley Shelton's classroom where her life encounters twists and turns.
Like other cancer patients, Chloe finds her school days a bit challenging and much different than her classmates.
"On Mondays, we usually get her school work for the week," her mother said.
She is home schooled, for the most part. That is because of her low immune system. McGee said her daughter can't be around other children when her levels are low. Chloe is more prone to catching viruses because her body struggles to fight them off.
"She has a desk right here that she works on," McGee said. "Then she goes on Wednesday and Thursdays and her teacher works with her."
Shelton, who Chloe calls her favorite teacher, spends 30 minutes each day working with the kindergartner on areas she can improve in.
"She can't do too much," McGee said. "She gets exhausted fast. Some days she can do an hour, and some days she can only do 30 minutes."
Although Shelton says Chloe is her only student battling cancer, she said the Brookland School District has had many students come through facing the same fight.
"Kids like this, they need that extra love and support from the community and their family and friends," Shelton said.
Mack told Region 8 News, sometimes these children worry about going to school and seeing their classmates' reactions to their bald heads and simply knowing they have an illness.
Not for Chloe.
McGee said her vibrant daughter has accepted the changes, which they say are temporary.
Shelton said Chloe's classmates had questions but adjusted perfectly.
"They noticed an empty chair at the beginning of the year, so I told them about Chloe's situation," Shelton said. "I showed them a picture of her, and I'll never forget it," Shelton said as she started tearing up. "One little boy said Mrs. Shelton, she is beautiful."
The students go on about their daily routine: counting, spelling, coloring, and learning to stay inside the lines.
"It warms my heart," Shelton said. "These kids don't see it. They just see her for who she is inside and out."
For teachers, it can be more challenging.
"It's hard, especially when you look at them and know they are feeling bad," Shelton said. "There are times you worry, but you can't let your other students see that."
In Northeast Arkansas, communities come together one-by-one to rally behind children like Chloe.
For Chloe, the Brookland Bearcats remain by her each step of the way, bringing her toys, laughs, and hugs.
"Anyway we can make them feel special, that's what we are going to do," Shelton said. "We are a community that sticks together. You need to go the extra mile for these children because they are already facing a difficult time. They deserve that."
"They are little miracles," Mack said. "They are so resilient. I don't know how they do it. I don't know how they get through one chemotherapy to the next and still be happy."
Mack said over the past 10 years, doctors have seen a 5% increase in the number of childhood cancer cases in Arkansas.
She said it is unknown why there is an increase, but she said she does know doctors are seeing more positive outcomes.
"Let's say about 40 years ago, 50% of children were dying and 50% were living, now we are closer to 90%, there's hope."
Chloe keeps that hope tucked in her heart every night while she knows her fight became her communities fight too.
"She knows she's going to fight this cancer and win," McGee said.
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