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After cancer battle as youngster, BHS grad wants to help other children

Bailey Anderson, 18, will be among the seniors to graduate today from Bemidji High School. Her tattoo reads ‘survivor’ and is a testament to her battle with cancer as a young child. Anderson plans to attend Bemidji State University and hopes to have a career in childhood education. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Bailey Anderson, 18, will be among the seniors to graduate today from Bemidji High School. Her tattoo reads ‘survivor’ and is a testament to her battle with cancer as a young child. Anderson plans to attend Bemidji State University and hopes to have a career in childhood education. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI — When Bailey Anderson told her parents she was getting a tattoo for her 18th birthday, they reacted as many parents would, with a little shock and a lot of uncertainty.

But then she explained why she wanted it and what it would look like.

The tattoo — paid for by her parents — now spans the right side of Bailey’s back shoulder blade, "survivor" written in script, a gold-bordered purple ribbon hanging down from the first V.

Bailey doesn’t remember her cancer battle. At six-weeks-old, she got sick and spiked a high fever.

Yet, after a few days on antibiotics, she still wasn’t improving. Bailey wasn’t eating, her breathing was shallow, and she would cry when she was held.

Her mother, Kristen, took her back to the hospital at the insistence of her own mother, Lorraine Montgomery, a licensed practical nurse.

Dr. Howard Hoody immediately knew she was very sick. He thought it was maybe spinal meningitis, but the spinal tap came back negative.

A chest x-ray revealed the mass.

"That’s when they told us, ‘We can’t do anything more for you here,’ and we were sent to Fargo (N.D.)," Kristen said.

Dr. Nathan Kobrinsky, an oncologist at the Roger Maris Cancer Center, oversaw the tests that led to the eventual diagnosis: stage IV neuroblastoma.

The initial prognosis was good; the medical team thought it was a contained mass in her chest cavity. But then, they found "fingers" of the tumor wrapped throughout Bailey’s lungs and around her aorta.

After nine months of chemotherapy, the results were astounding: There was barely anything left of the cancer. A little scar tissue remained that was eventually removed through surgery.

"They went in there and there was basically nothing left," Kristen said. "The doctor grabbed the chart to make sure they were operating on the same child."

The experience was dizzying.

"They told us (afterward), if we’d waited even a week, she’d have been dead or paralyzed," Kristen said.

the ‘cancer crew’

For a young girl who got a Make-A-Wish trip to Florida for her seventh birthday and spends a week every summer developing friendships at Kamp KACE (Kids Against Cancer Everywhere), Bailey didn’t initially understand that cancer is usually a bad thing.

When she was 7 or 8, one of Kristen’s friends was pregnant and Bailey approached her, happy and excited for the expectant mom-to-be.

"She says (to the friend) … ‘I hope your baby has cancer,’" Kristen recalled. "She thought cancer was something good, that it was something cool."

Obviously, that’s no longer the case.

Bailey — and now her eighth-grade brother Jaxon, too — has attended Kamp KACE since she was 5, spending a week with other kids who battled cancer and also their siblings.

Some kids still receive treatment at camp. Bailey said there have been years when the kids know a specific camper is unlikely to return the following summer.

In memoriam of campers who died that year, his or her cabin-mates decorate a stone in honor of their lost friend, which is placed alongside a garden filled with ferns, planted each year from campers.

This summer, a stone will be dedicated for one of Bailey’s friends, 16-year-old Ian, who died in December.

"This was the first friend (I lost) that I’ve really been incredibly close to," Bailey said.

Bailey said she and her dearest camp friends formed the "Cancer Crew," pledging to get the same "survivor" tattoos for their 18th birthdays. The first got his in December. Bailey was second, in April.

"We don’t talk about cancer," Bailey said, emphatically. "My closest friend, my best friend, I don’t know what kind of cancer she had. I think it’s leukemia but I’m not positive …

"I didn’t realize until I was making my scrapbook writing about it, but it really is a bond … it’s just our week to forget about it, to be normal kids."

wants to work with kids

A chemo drug caused Bailey to lose hearing in high frequencies. Needing amplification, she was placed in a Bemidji Middle School pod with other hard-of-hearing students.

There, she began learning sign language. Later, at Bemidji High School, she took both sign language courses offered at the school — she even took the second one twice — and now is quite proficient.

In the deaf community, the only way to get your own name sign is from a deaf person. Bailey actually has two. One friend makes the sign for the letter B and waves it down along the face to simulate her long, wavy hair. Another teases her tendency to talk a lot by making a B and using it in the sign for blabbermouth.

"I’ve gotten really close with a lot of deaf kids," Bailey said.

Bailey’s signing proved exceptionally useful when her youngest brother, Johnny, showed delayed speech development.

Johnny, who has XYY syndrome, didn’t talk until age 3 so Bailey, who now works as his personal care assistant, used signing to help her now 5-year-old brother communicate.

Bailey, who this morning will graduate from BHS, plans to attend Bemidji State University to pursue a career in early childhood or elementary education, with perhaps a focus on special education.

"I always wanted to work with kids, but I didn’t even think about early childhood programs, or working with kids with special needs, until Johnny," Bailey said. "I’ve always taken care of him and I love taking care of other kids.

"With my sign language, how well I deal with other kids like my brother, and how much patience I have, I think I could be really good at it."