In June of 2009, when she was 12 ½ years old, Annina became one of the 40+ children in the U.S. who are diagnosed with cancer each day. She had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer diagnosed in less than 5% of all childhood cancers. Her only symptom was a pain near her knee that would not go away, which started during a long day of walking at Disneyland.
The diagnosis turned her life, and her family’s, upside down. The treatment was very difficult, grueling, and something no one should have to endure. Anti-nausea meds that commonly work for patients undergoing chemotherapy, didn’t entirely fill the bill. The chemos were so harsh and toxic that Annina was hospitalized for each treatment for several days — a total of 95 overnights (120+ days) during an eight month period. Just after Christmas 2009, the sores in her mouth and down her throat were so bad that she didn’t eat or drink for one week. There were very few days during her eight month treatment that she felt decent.
In addition to 18 rounds of very difficult chemotherapy (including 18 blood or blood platelet transfusions), Annina also had limb salvage surgery in September 2009, replacing 13 cm of bone in her right femur with a titanium rod. She gradually learned to walk again and to bend her leg, however rehab was very slow since she was still undergoing chemo for several months. Sometime after the conclusion of her treatment she had enormous issues with the use of her leg, and after many months it was finally discovered that the prosthesis had broken. She had a second surgery to replace the titanium rod in January 2012. It wasn’t until April of 2013 that she was finally cleared to stop physical therapy.
During Annina’s stays in the hospital, she would often ask why there wasn’t a cure, or a better treatment, and why doctors didn’t know whether the horrible treatment was even going to work.
The only response Annina’s parents could provide was the truth: Childhood cancer research has been underfunded and more money needed to be raised for research.
Annina first started raising money for childhood cancer research through KidsAreStars, where greeting cards were sold with her artwork (much of the artwork done in the hospital), and then the artwork of friends. After taking summer business workshops, she became adamant about wanting to play a bigger role in fundraising for childhood cancer. Cure Me Too Childhood Cancer Foundation was created to ensure that every dollar raised could go to childhood cancer research. She even created a game, published in the App Store for a couple of years, to help raise money.
Annina has been fortunate to remain cancer-free since finishing her treatment in March of 2010, and is currently enrolled at Stanford University. For others, the fight has continued or is just beginning. Emma Knickman, for example, was diagnosed about a week from the time Annina was diagnosed. Although the families lived in different parts of California, the Hanlons and Knickmans connected at the time of the kids’ limb salvage surgeries in 2009, and they have remained friends ever since. Despite the fact that Annina and Emma were diagnosed with the same cancer and had the same treatment, Emma has relapsed four times — because the standard treatment for osteosarcoma is simply not effective for everyone.
The Hanlons continue to be inspired by the many families with kids who have relapsed, such as Emma, or are dealing with the side effects of toxic drugs, or are learning new ways to live, despite radical surgeries – and are especially inspired by the many families who have lost their kids to childhood cancers.