For most young adults, high school is a time of self-discovery and independence, a place to learn about life and figure out the future.
For Abby Peterson, high school did not go nearly as planned. A shy but stellar student, Peterson began to experience debilitating migraines during spring of her freshman year. The headaches led to two months of doctor visits, until a CAT scan was suggested.
“All of a sudden, I had a huge tumor,” Peterson said about a lemon-size tumor located near the left side of her skull. “School was almost done, so it was perfect timing.”
The Peterson family’s lives changed abruptly on May 17, 2014, with the news. There was relatively no indication of a health issue, much less an Atypical Rhabdoid Tumor (AT/RT). This type of cancer is rare and occurs predominantly in children three and under. It is known to be extremely aggressive, so much so that it is not rated in stages.
“I always say we were thrown into a club that nobody wants to join,” Stefani Peterson said about the way the family’s lives changed.
“We’re Christians, and when she was first put in the ICU, I walked through the halls of the hospital and I thought ‘we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death,’ ” she said.
15 years ago, the odds of surviving an AT/RT tumor were zero. Fast-forward to 2014, oncologists were hopeful they could save Peterson.
But there was no time to let the news sink in. The next morning at 7 a.m. Peterson was in pre-op to have the tumor removed. The May 18 operation was a success, but the journey was far from over. Peterson had eight excruciating months of radiation and chemotherapy ahead of her.
“It was really, really hard,” Peterson said. “Every day I just had to keep going.”
“There were times that I just wished it was me facing this, and not my child,” Stefani Peterson, Abby’s mother, said.
The treatments used to save Peterson were equally as aggressive as the cancer. The chemotherapy and radiation were in high dosages, three stem cell transplants were required and the then 14-year-old was even exposed to proton radon therapy.
Peterson’s father, Dana, would sleep in the hospital overnight and Stefani Peterson would stay during the daytime. Dana had to quit his job and Stefani eventually had to take a medical leave from her work as a music teacher.
The Petersons described the treatments and stays at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House to be a day-by-day struggle that sometimes forced them to look only at getting through the next minute.
Peterson’s treatments were completed in August 2015.
But she wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Peterson thought she would be able to return to running, singing in Northwest Christian’s choir and participating in theater productions just as she had pre-cancer. However, residual radiation damage steered her off that course.
One day the young survivor lost the function of her right hand, and shortly after, her foot. Delays in speech and other cognitive motor skills were soon realized, and the game plan shifted from recovery to discovery of potentially life-altering damages.
“At first I thought I was getting stronger – it was better,” Peterson said. “But in the summer – mom said it was damage from the treatments.”
“That was crushing,” Dana said with tears in his eyes. “We were all so fragile still.”
Stefani said they had been warned of a possibility of damage, and that “it was emotionally worse” to see it. Doctors described the effects to be a “slow stroke” over time, because it damages healthy non-cancerous brain cells and affects physical and mental abilities.
In May 2016, Peterson underwent a laser procedure at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Care Therapy Center to scar her brain tissue to decrease swelling.
But Peterson’s story isn’t one of pity, it is of perseverance. She taught herself to become left-handed “almost overnight” and all the while has engaged in keeping up with classes online. She participated in “Seussical the Musical” in March at Spokane Civic Theater, singing and dancing onstage alongside other rambunctious youths.
“It was amazing to see the outpouring of love and support,” Stefani said.
The Petersons expressed gratitude toward God, the Choram Deo Presbyterian Church, a Facebook page called “Prayers4Abby” and friends and family.
“Never give up,” said Peterson, mentioning her senior yearbook quote.
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