From toddler to teen in a heartbeat

Patient Stories |



She was 3 when cancer threatened her future, but this young girl’s surgeon was already thinking about her patient’s prom years down the road.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

When Tami Anderson’s little girl was first diagnosed with cancer, the Bloomington mother and nurse wasn’t thinking about her daughter’s high school prom.

After all, Ava Anderson was just 3 years old in 2010 when doctors diagnosed a mass in her kidney as Wilms tumor. But fast-forward 12 years, and prom was top of mind for mother and daughter.

Ava, a freshman at Bloomington North High School, went to prom two weeks ago with a junior at her school. She looked beautiful in her elegant, off-the-shoulder dress, and her mom couldn’t help but flash back to 3-year-old Ava.

That’s because the Riley Children’s Health surgeon who placed her port for chemo – Dr. Karen West – positioned it a smidge below where it typically goes in the upper chest.

“She told us she did that because one day Ava is going to go to prom and she’s going to want to wear a strapless dress and we don’t want that scar to show,” Tami recalled.

At the time, it seemed like a sweet gesture because prom was a long way off, but it told Tami something else.

“We were going through all the emotions,” she said about the diagnosis. “Even though it was such a high rate of cure, you think of cancer and your mind automatically goes to a dark side. But Dr. West was telling us there was a future for her. It meant a lot.”

Even though Ava didn’t end up wearing a strapless dress to prom, the point is, she could have, her mom said.

“It was such a monumental moment. My heart and my mind went back to that day (at Riley).”

Ava, now 15 and cancer-free, had no symptoms before her mom noticed a mass on the left side of her abdomen when she picked her toddler up one day. When it was still there the next morning, the nurse in her told her something wasn’t right, and she took her daughter to her pediatrician. The initial suspicion was a simple case of constipation.

Jami, who works for IU Health Southern Indiana Physicians, advocated for further testing, and when the doctor learned the results, he sent Ava and her parents straight to Riley in Indianapolis. There, they found Dr. West and oncologist Dr. Jodi Skiles waiting for them.

“We had the best team I could ever ask for,” Jami said. “Everything fell into place like it was supposed to.”

In fact, she said they built such a connection with Dr. Skiles that little Ava was a flower girl in the physician’s wedding not long after she finished her treatment.

Today, Ava is a varsity cheerleader at her high school and is on a competitive cheer team in Bloomington that recently won a national title. She is also involved with Hoosiers Outrun Cancer and the Riley Dance Marathon at Bloomington North.