Brain Cancer Changes Life For Young Girl And Family


by Mike Burkett
roundup staff reporter
There are a lot of hard parts. But the hardest, Tracy Allen will tell you, is that her 4-year-old daughter Ashley looks and acts so darned healthy.

Ain't it the truth.

Within any given three-minute period, Ashley might play video games with one or all of her three brothers ... ask to go outside ... ask to come inside ... ask for a drink of water ... roll around on the floor with Charlie, the family's beloved Golden Retriever ... ask for a candy bar ... show you her favorite doll ... and ask for "a cookie. A chocolate cookie. No, I mean another candy bar."

Plus, this child is so cute -- with her perfectly round little Campbell's Kids face and glasses that magnify her already huge blue eyes -- one wonders why some smart television producer hasn't given Ashley her own sitcom by now.

Alas, TV stardom will have to wait. For now.

High on the short list of a parent's worst nightmares is the one now being endured by Tracy Allen and her husband, Frank.

One month ago, straight out of the blue, Ashley was diagnosed with brain cancer. A week later she underwent eight-and-a-half hours of brain surgery. And now this bite-sized bundle of adorability is facing many months of radiation and chemotherapy, which may or may not help her.

When life began to change

The story behind the story is frighteningly brief. The Allen family moved from Lacombe, Alberta, Canada to Payson a mere two months ago. They purchased a home and, while waiting for escrow to close, moved Ashley and her three brothers -- Jamie, 13, Bret, 8 and Aaron, 7 -- into a cramped 22-foot travel trailer in Ox Bow Estates. Frank, 39, started work at Phil White Ford.

Tracy, 35, held down the home fort. And life was fairly perfect.

Life stayed that way even when Ashley fell and broke her arm. As it turned out, the damage didn't require surgery, as the Allens had first feared. Even better, as far as Ashley was concerned, her arm was wrapped in a purple fingers-to-shoulder cast. Purple happens to be her very favorite color.

"She didn't complain once," Tracy reports. "She was just a trouper."

But soon, Ashley began complaining of headaches and stomach aches, which the Allens understandably failed to connect to an earlier incident: The day before they left Canada, Ashley had suffered a seizure, with no warning or medical history to explain it.

"We were scared to death," Tracy says. "It lasted 12 minutes, which might as well have been 12 eternities. I've heard that if seizures go over 15 minutes, they can cause permanent brain damage."

Told by doctors that the incident was almost surely a one-time fluke thing, the Allens gritted their teeth and got back to the overwhelming details of moving four children, a dog and everything they own from one country to another.

A turn for the worse

The night of Oct. 18, Ashley suffered her worst headaches and stomachaches yet, so Tracy rushed the girl to Payson Regional Medical Center.

"Even then, I really wasn't thinking there was something major wrong," says Tracy. "I thought, at worst, she's got a mild case of the flu."

Within 10 minutes, however, Ashley was being prepped for a CAT scan. Later, when the scan operator walked toward her with the results, Tracy remembers, "He looked like he was thinking, 'I hate my job.' That's when I knew something was wrong."

What had been found was a large cyst and an even larger dark mass on the rear exterior of Ashley's brain. Two days later in Phoenix, Ashley underwent brain surgery, which began at two in the afternoon and ended at 10:30 p.m.

The doctors had warned the Allens that Ashley might lose her speech, emerge with speech problems or suffer countless other possible side effects. Miraculously, she experienced none of the above.

In fact, 20 minutes after her surgery, she lifted her head and said, "Mommy, can I have a drink of water?" Within 12 hours, she was going on wagon rides through the hospital corridors. And within 48 hours, she was leaping out of bed to hug visitors.

Terrifying news

In a perfect world, the story would end there. But it doesn't.

The doctors' diagnosis: What they'd removed was an "atypical rhabdoid teratoma tumor."

Chances of malignancy: very, very high.

Survival rate: Zero to 1 percent.

Tracy winces at the memory of being told -- and trying to absorb -- that unabsorbable information.

"Even the doctors were depressed. It was as bad as bad news can be," she says. "They said only four children had ever been given this diagnosis. Three didn't make it, and the fourth has had it less than a year, so they still don't know how that will turn out."

When the truth sank in, Tracy got mad. "A zero to 1 percent chance of survival? That is simply unacceptable!"

A fighting chance

She phoned her sister, Cindi Whittaker, a Scottsdale nurse married to Dr. Mike Whittaker, an endocrinologist for Scottsdale's Mayo Clinic. Dr. Whittaker, in turn, contacted cancer specialist Dr. Burt Shytower of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who requested to see everything regarding Ashley's tumor. ASAP.

The best the Allens could hope for, Tracy thought, was that Dr. Shytower might fine-tune the radiation, chemotherapy and other "brutal" treatments and procedures Ashley was already scheduled to receive.

A 'potful of hope'

But Dr. Shytower gave them something more than that. He gave them what Tracy calls "a whole potful of hope."

The tumor in Ashley's brain, the good doctor reported, was actually a "primitive ecto plasmic tumor." While still a very dangerous "grade 4" tumor, the survival rate for that type of cancer is 30 to 50 percent--quite a leap from a high of 1 percent.

"Let me tell you something," Tracy says flatly. "I don't believe the first diagnosis was wrong. I think it was exactly correct. Doctors of that caliber don't give you a diagnosis like that unless they absolutely know for sure.

"God changed it.

"There has been divine intervention throughout this whole tragedy," she said. "That's what brought us from Canada to Payson, where we've found the greatest doctors and received the best medical help, and made the nicest new friends anyone could ask for.

"I mean, I just can't believe it. We've been here two months, we're not even American citizens ... and people are praying for us, asking what they can do to help, starting fund-raising drives ...

"I know it probably sounds really weird, after all we've gone through and what's still ahead of us," she says, "but my family is very, very lucky."

Ashley Allen Fund

The Ashley Allen Fund has been created by Payson Real Estate and Investment, which sold the Allens their new home. Donations can be made at the Arizona Bank, account number 76206740.

Also, a fund-raising raffle will be held at 10 a.m. Nov. 26th in the Swiss Village Shopping Center. For more information, call Sam Rinehart or Barbara Thacker at 474-1800.

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