Creativity leads fight against cancer

13-year-old Roseville girl designs greeting cards, proceeds fund cancer research
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Annina Hanlon smoothes her short-cropped hair down behind her ears. The 13-year-old used to have layered, shoulder-length hair with bangs, but now the hair is a slightly different shade of light brown with curls in the back. A necklace with a cross hangs around her neck. She’s thin, but her mom says she’s always been skinny. A 12-inch-long scar runs below her knee up to her thigh. “I didn’t realize I’d be losing my hair,” Annina says. “I’m a girl, I like my hair. That bothered me the most.” But she’s now fond of her cute new look. “Pixie cuts are in right now,” she says. Annina, a Roseville resident, lost her hair over the course of the past year as she underwent 18 rounds of chemotherapy to treat osteosarcoma, an aggressive and rare form of bone cancer that commonly affects teenagers. Osteosarcoma falls under the umbrella cancer sarcoma, which refers to cancers of the connective tissues, such as nerves, muscles, cartilage, joints, bones or blood vessels. “Childhood cancer is rare enough,” said her doctor, Kent Jolly of Kaiser Roseville Medical Center. “One percent of all cancers in the United States are cancers in children.” That translates to about 13,000 kids diagnosed each year. Of that, only about 5 percent represent osteosarcoma, according to the Sarcoma Foundation of America. Although rare, childhood cancer is the No. 1 disease killer of children, more than asthma, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and pediatrics AIDS combined, according to the National Childhood Cancer Foundation. Yet, pediatric cancers receive little funding from the National Cancer Institute and other big cancer organizations. “The research (for osteosarcoma) is advancing slowly because it’s rare and the funding is limited,” Dr. Jolly said. “There’s more interest in the more-common types of adult cancer.” But Annina is doing her part. The budding artist designs greeting cards, which she sells online to raise money for osteosarcoma research, currently for the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative. She has already raised more than $1,200. The backs of the cards tell Annina’s story, intended to promote awareness about this less-known form of cancer. “We all know about leukemia, but there are other pediatric cancers out there, too,” says her mom Roma Hanlon. Annina started drawing soon into treatment. Reading proved too difficult because of all the drugs she took and sketching kept her distracted from her diagnosis. Several drawings — cats, dogs, flowers, peace signs — made it onto greeting cards. She now paints landscapes and beaches. The images are a far cry from some of her earlier creations, which include the words “upset” and “misunderstood” along with rain clouds. “I really like (drawing) because it’s a good way to express my feelings,” Annina says. “I was never up to doing anything. I couldn’t walk around without passing out.” The trouble started on March 30, 2009, when Annina and her family visited Disneyland. “We were walking all day and by the end of the day my knee was killing me,” Annina says. “It was an acute paint. I stayed off it and the pain didn’t go away.” No amount of rest in the following weeks made the pain subside. An X-ray and MRI didn’t show signs of cancer. Then doctors performed a biopsy. Dr. Jolly said children are always injuring themselves, twisting their knees and ankles, and sometimes parents confuse possible signs of osteosarcoma with sports-related injuries or growing pains. “What made Annina’s (pain) different is the persistence in the same area and it continued to hurt for a long period of time,” Dr. Jolly said. Three months after the Disneyland trip, the family camped in Lake Tahoe. They all piled into their van to sleep because a bear had ventured near their tent. A phone call woke them up. Kaiser had the biopsy results. Doctors diagnosed Annina with cancer on June 30, 2009. Tests showed the disease hadn’t spread to her lungs, where it typically metastasizes. “To tell the truth, I had no idea what I was in for,” Annina says. “I don’t know if I even realized kids could get (cancer). I was not nearly as devastated as my parents.” Her mother had difficulty attending church during that time because all she wanted to do was cry. “It’s like a nightmare you’re never going to wake up from,” Roma Hanlon says. “It’s very surreal. You think you have the perfect life, relatively. The thing I remember most at the beginning is suddenly my face felt like it couldn’t smile. I felt numb.” Annina underwent six rounds of chemotherapy. Then she had her knee and half of her thighbone replaced with a titanium prosthesis as part of limb-salvage surgery. Annina underwent 12 more rounds of chemotherapy. During her frequent hospital stays — she spent 95 nights in the hospital over eight months of treatment — she would sit in bed and bend her leg to regain her flexibility and strengthen the muscles. During chemotherapy, she barely ate and couldn’t stop throwing up. She’d gag and vomit when trying to brush her teeth. She could eat apple pie, which her younger sister Michelina baked for her on occasion. The family adjusted their busy schedules to spend nights with their daughter. The mom, who works for Oracle, set up her laptop computer on the bedside table. Dad Michael, a psychologist at Kaiser, regularly visited during lunch breaks. The parents made sure to keep younger daughter Michelina, now 10, involved in dance and theater activities. “It’s very hard on siblings,” Roma Hanlon said. “(Cancer) definitely affects the whole family.” Dr. Jolly says osteosarcoma patients have two treatment routes depending on the first three months of chemotherapy. At that point, doctors determine if they’ve removed all the cancer and what percentage of the tumor is dead. Annina was considered a “good responder” to treatment. “Her chances of being cured are very good,” Dr. Jolly says. “Annina is a great patient. She’s a sweet young lady, very motivated to get better.” Now in remission, she attends 8th grade at Olympus Junior High School. Doctors continue to monitor her for the reoccurrence of cancer and perform blood tests to check for side effects from chemotherapy. Annina no longer walks with a limp, but she’s not able to jump, run fast or participate in any contact sports. “It’s OK with me because I was never very sporty,” she says. Sena Christian can be reached at ---------- To purchase Annina Hanlon’s greeting cards to benefit the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative, visit and click on “Order Cards Here.” The company donates 45 percent of proceeds from the cards to the initiative. For more information, visit ---------- The Facts September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Did you know: · In the United States, every three and a half minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer · Each year, in the greater Sacramento area, about 180 children will be diagnosed with some form of childhood cancer · Childhood cancer is the No. 1 disease killer of children, more than asthma, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and pediatrics AIDS combined · Out of the National Cancer Institute’s $4.6 billion annual budget, the 12 major groups of pediatric cancers combined received less than 3 percent · Sarcomas represent about 1 percent of all adult cancers and between 15 and 20 percent of childhood cancers. Osteosarcoma represents about 5 percent of childhood cancers. Sources: National Childhood Cancer Foundation, Keaton Raphael Memorial and Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative