Her older sister is the one that was ill," Ed Atcheson said of his younger daughter.
Sarah, 5, wanted to go to a doctor's appointment with her older sister, Veronica, 10. After the doctor examined Veronica, she started kidding with Sarah.
That's when the Madison Parish family's cancer journey started.
"She would check her ears and she started tickling, literally, tickling her belly telling her, 'Oh, I feel your breakfast,' and finally she touched her in the center of her belly, and she kind of backed off and said something didn't feel right," Ed said. "So that is how we found out."
From the doctor's office on March 1, Sarah moved through an ultrasound and a CAT scan. When the doctor saw the results, Sarah was transported to Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge. She was later diagnosed with a Wilms' tumor.
"It was definitely a life-changing day," Ed said. "You go from a day where everything is perfectly fine to where there are doctors ... We knew her doctor since she started —when she comes out and you see tears in her eyes, and she's trying to talk to you, we know something is different, something is wrong. That was just the way it went."
The battle begins
According to the Mayo Clinic, a Wilms' tumor is a rare kidney cancer. It's the most common kidney cancer in children and is most often diagnosed in those ages 3 to 4.
Sarah's tumor was the size of a football when it was removed. Ed said it had reached that size undetected and had started to affect other organs. She underwent radiation treatment prior to surgery to stop the growth.
Wilms' tumors are a soft mass tumor and are removed intact when possible. In most cases, this means removing organs the tumor is in contact with. In Sarah's case, radiation ensured she would lose only one kidney and the tumor itself.
She is now receiving additional radiation treatments at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis to target additional live cancer cells detected after the surgery.
"She’s here," Ed said. "She’s here with us, and she’s probably got one of the biggest spirits you’ll meet. She’s a fighter."
Ed said the experience with St. Jude's and affiliated hospitals has been incredible, and that Sarah has received extraordinary care since the day the tumor was first detected.
"St. Jude's. I'm 39 years old. All your life you hear about St. Jude's. You see the kids. You see all of the stuff on TV, and never did I ever taken any of this to heart. You don't think about what they really actually go through," Ed said.
"I now know the value of a simple box of crayons with a child. It's just the work they do. It is amazing. Amazing. They go out of their way. They told us from the get go their goal is no matter how bad the situation, how bad that child feels, their goal is to put a smile on their face, and I have not seen them not meet that goal. It is awesome."
Madison Parish steps up
The Atchesons have received an outpouring of support from their Madison Parish friends and neighbors — many whom they have never met.
On June 23, the Parkview Baptist Church and numerous community partners, including First Baptist Church of Tallulah, the Madison Parish Sheriff's Office, Madison Parish 911 and the mayor's office, banded together for a major event with a silent auction, meals and fellowship.
Jason Lupo, a pastor at Parkview Baptist, helped organize the event, which he said brought everyone in the community together in this moment.
"We found out basically the same time they did that Sarah was sick," Lupo said. "Ed's a sheriff's deputy in town and very well known. His wife (Veronica) has worked in town here in Tallulah for a long time, so we automatically started talking about what we could do to help them, to be there for them."
Lupo has traveled with the Atcheson's to many of their medical appointments. When he doesn't, other church members or friends often do.
"Every time they go, there are texts, phone calls. There are people praying for them," Lupo said. "They understand they are supported, they are loved and that we are here for them. They understand that people love them, and that has been a major impact on them.
"You don't think about your standing in the community. You do your job. You come home. You raise your kids. You do the things that you do, but you don't think about the impact you are having on other people, but they are able to see that."
Lupo said individuals who don't have an ongoing relationship with the Atchesons have offered support. A church in California spends its Wednesday night prayer time praying for Sarah and her family.
For Ed, the amount of support his family has received is overwhelming, the experience humbling. He said he knows there is a reason for everything, and the challenges he has watched other families face while seeking treatment for Sarah let him know his family has been blessed.
"Just today, getting her treatment in Baton Rouge, I am looking at a quilt on the wall," he said. "I have seen this quilt many times. It's a homemade quilt. It looked like it had maybe Bible scriptures written on it in block. Just all over it.
"I got to looking at it today, and it wasn't that. It was actually cancer patients who had come through, and they had asked them 'What's your biggest wish in life?' And that's what they embroidered on this quilt. One quote that really stuck out at me was they wished all wars all over the world will stop. There are many things there. You just look at it. All of this, it makes you look at life different, that's for sure."
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