Patient’s Positive Attitude Inspires Family to Find the Joy in Every Day

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On a routine fishing trip with her father, eight-year-old River Henderson began to feel a pain in her left shoulder. Assuming she had just pulled a muscle, her family had no idea what kind of health care journey lay ahead of them.

After weeks of chiropractic adjustments, followed by pain-filled and sleepless nights, River soon ran a fever. At the hospital, her blood tests and urine tests all came back normal. When a last-minute trip to California ended unexpectedly due to River’s declining health, the Henderson’s soon found themselves at Primary Children’s Hospital, where they first began to recognize the terrifying feeling of the unknown.

“I’m really sorry to say this, but it looks like your daughter has cancer.”

Karin Henderson, River’s mother, had never expected to hear these words. River’s stage-four liver cancer had begun to spread to her lungs, and the doctor shared the news that she had very little chance of living through it. Chemotherapy, although presenting a long and heavy road ahead, was an option. “We knew we had to try it,” explained Karin. “If there was even a possibility of her getting out of this, and we didn’t try, we would always wonder ‘what if.’” Karin decided not to risk the “what if,” and River began her treatments in September of 2014.

While going through her treatments, River and her family began consulting with Rebecka Meyers, MD, to discuss possible surgery options. At first, Karin was taken aback by Meyers’s blunt honesty. However, the family soon became reliant on her “voice of reality,” and their “relationship began to change after months of high fives and finding new ideas,” Karin emphasized.

One of those ideas included concentrating the chemotherapy in areas with the highest chance of surviving. After continuing with this method for three more months, River faced her biggest surgery yet. The plan was to remove the affected areas of the liver. Meyers had reached out to specialists around the world, and although some had called her crazy, she knew that it was River’s best shot. 

Surprisingly, Karin felt overwhelming peace and gratitude. “I thought, ‘We’ve made it this far,’ and if she were to pass, these last eight months with her were so special,” she recounted.

The surgery was much more difficult than expected, lasting fourteen hours. They surgically removed 80 percent of River’s liver, her diaphragm on her right side, and pieces of affected lungs.

River’s recovery in the intensive care unit was “excruciating” for Karin to watch. However, it sparked a new perspective for the family. River had to start slowly with eating, first having water, then ice, then juice. One day, she was able to eat a single grape. Karin coined this as a “one grape day,” explaining that you do the best you can each day.

“Her middle name is Joy,” Karin continued. “We’ve learned to find the joy in every day. Even though it can be hard and painful, you can always find something.”

After recovery and a full year of home-based experimental chemotherapy, River’s cancer was gone. However, the newfound feeling of stability would not last long.

River was healthy for two full years. She played tennis, rode horses, and even acted in a community play as Jane in Mary Poppins. “Just to see the little dreams of a little girl’s heart to be fulfilled was really special,” Karin recalled.

This past summer, the Hendersons were faced once again with the unknown: River’s cancer reappeared in her lungs. However, River’s positive attitude allowed her to face this newfound challenge head on.

“She knew exactly what was going to happen, and as soon as we found the cancer, she said, ‘We need to get it out of there,’” Karin recounted proudly. “She hopped up on the surgery table and said ‘Let’s do this.’” Once again, her cancer was gone, but not completely.

As of February 2019, River is currently having her blood tested every month, waiting for the cancer to grow big enough to find.

“If we look at it as a whole journey of cancer and chemotherapy and surgeries, it is too overwhelming,” Karin shared. “Life happens one day at a time.”

This new mindset has helped the Hendersons to find the joy in every day. Karin explained that they “don’t need a diagnosis of ‘cancer free’ to be happy.” She emphasized that they are now “able to find the joy in today, even in the unknown.”

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