'My daughter beat cancer twice — and she's only 6 years old'

Korin Miller

When Tray Sullivan’s 1-year-old daughter, Arden MacPhee, became unusually fussy back in January 2014, she assumed it was due to an ear infection, so, she took her to the pediatrician. “I thought that taking her to the pediatrician on a workday was so inconvenient,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I had no idea.”

The doctor checked Arden’s ears and found they were just fine, but then checked out the rest of the toddler’s body. “She was kind of palpating her body and stopped at her abdomen,” Sullivan says. “She said, ‘There’s kind of a mass here. I wouldn’t panic. We’ll figure out what’s going on.’” The two were referred to their local hospital, where Arden had an ultrasound done. Then they waited.

Hours later, the child’s pediatrician came into the room. “She was crying and said, ‘I’m so sorry. Arden has cancer,’” Sullivan says.

Things were a bit of a blur from there. Sullivan says she was “100 percent in shock” and “kicked into planning mode.” While her daughter was put in an ambulance and taken to a specialized hospital hours away with Sullivan’s husband, Sullivan went home, packed a bag, and tried to figure out care for the couple’s 3-year-old son. “When I was driving to the hospital, it hit me: ‘This happens to people on TV. This couldn’t be my life,’” she says.

Arden MacPhee, now 6 years old, has battled cancer twice. (Photo courtesy of Tray Sullivan)
Arden MacPhee, now 6 years old, has battled cancer twice. (Photo courtesy of Tray Sullivan)

Arden went through days of diagnostic testing that determined she had a Wilms’ tumor on her kidney, the most common type of kidney cancer. The toddler then started 11 days of chemotherapy. “She was in good spirits and had no idea what was going on,” Sullivan says. “At night, after she had gone to bed, I’d be up all night on the computer trying to find out more information.”

After that, Arden was sent home. “I didn’t want to go home,” Sullivan says. “I didn’t know what to do. You get a binder on how to be a mom to a kid with cancer. It was overwhelming.” Arden went through several rounds of chemotherapy, had surgery to remove her kidney, and then went through more chemotherapy.

Sullivan says it was almost “easy” that Arden was going through this as a baby. “She would throw up after a treatment and want to keep playing,” the mom says. “But her sleeping schedule was completely off.” On any given night, Sullivan says her daughter would be up at 3 a.m., wanting to have snacks and watch cartoons. That would wake her brother up, who wanted to do the same. “Our house was functioning like a normal household would during the day, but in the middle of the night…”

Arden was eventually declared cancer-free that summer. She had regular follow-up screening visits with an oncologist that became more spaced out over time.

Left: Tray Sullivan with her husband, son and daughter, Arden MacPhee; Arden holding a “Cancer Free” sign (right). (Photo courtesy of Tray Sullivan)
Left: Tray Sullivan with her husband, son and daughter, Arden MacPhee; Arden holding a “Cancer Free” sign (right). (Photo courtesy of Tray Sullivan)

A new cancer fight

But during a routine screening four years after Arden’s original diagnosis, the family was given more bad news: Arden had cancer again, this time in her remaining kidney. “Her other kidney was gone, so this was a new cancer,” Sullivan says. “It was like getting struck by lightning twice.” The news was a shock — Arden’s family was even planning a cancer-free party at the time.

Those plans were canceled and the little girl went through diagnostic testing again. “This time was extremely difficult,” Sullivan says. While Arden is a “really tough kid,” she understood what was going on this time around, her mom says. “She was asking, ‘Why can’t I go to school? Why do I have to be sick?’” Sullivan recalls. “She knows kids can die from cancer, but she didn’t ask if she would. She was more worried about things like waking up during surgery.”

Arden’s community rallied around her for both cancer fights, starting up fundraising ventures like Arden’s Army and Arden’s Lemonade Stand to try to raise money for her medical bills and for childhood cancer research.

The little girl went through 12 weeks of chemotherapy that were “brutal,” Sullivan says. “She spiked fevers almost every time, and we had to rush back to the hospital every time. Her little body was wasting away. She was so done.”

Sullivan says the cancer was “in the worst possible spot in her kidney” and “they told us that they would be trying to perform a miracle with the surgery.” If Arden’s surgeon couldn’t find all the cancer, she would have to have her remaining kidney removed, go on dialysis, and hope for a transplant — but Arden would have to be cancer-free for two years before she could even get a transplant.

The surgery, which happened in April 2018, took eight hours. “The surgeon got every last bit of the cancer,” Sullivan says. “It was the most amazing thing.”

“She had a really hard time recovering.”

While the surgery was a success, Arden struggled with the recovery. “Everything that could go wrong after the surgery did,” Sullivan says. Arden developed pneumonia and needed blood transfusions. She was also in extreme pain, and medication wasn’t helping.

“I remember one day just crying and thinking, ‘I can’t believe my kid is going to die and it’s not from cancer,” Sullivan says. “She was deteriorating so fast. She was screaming and crying all the time from the pain. She would look at me, like, ‘How can you let this happen to me? Why aren’t you doing anything?’ That was the hardest.”

Eventually, Arden recovered and her pain subsided. She needed more chemo after her surgery as a “just in case” and “every trip to the hospital after that was drama,” Sullivan says. “She didn’t want the IV, her veins were shot, and I felt like I was torturing my kid.”

But by July, Arden was considered cancer-free. Now, she “is as healthy as can be,” Sullivan says. “I think she has some psychological side effects, though. She tends to be a little clingy for a 6-year-old, but those are minor things we’re dealing with.”

Arden’s mom says she feels “optimistic” about her daughter’s future health, but she still worries. Arden has regular scans to make sure she stays cancer-free, and those can be scary. Still, “I look at her, and she’s a regular, healthy 6-year-old,” Sullivan says. “I’m so thankful for that.”

Sullivan says people have told her she’s so strong for getting through this. “But I’m not strong,” she says. “I’m being her mom. You just have to do it.”

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