A month before her third birthday, Charlie Reeder was on vacation with her family and became ill with what appeared at first to be a stomach bug. Not long after, she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer that most commonly affects children under the age of 5.
Today, she’s 12 years old, a member of her middle school’s dance team and student council, and an ambassador to other families facing this devastating diagnosis.
“She’s exceptional in everything she does,” her dad, Brett, said.
The journey began on that family trip, and it wasn’t readily apparent what was actually happening. “She was misdiagnosed for a week,” Brett said. When the medicine she had been prescribed ran out after a week and the vomiting resumed, they returned to her pediatrician for more tests. The doctor found blood in her urine and immediately sent the family to Children’s of Alabama. Doctors there performed several tests, including a CT scan which revealed that Charlie had a tumor.
Once the diagnosis was made, “things happened almost instantly,” Brett said. “We were hospitalized that night and within 48-72 hours, they were prepping her for chemotherapy.”
They stayed in the hospital 11 days that time, followed by visits every week or two. Charlie had surgery and an autologous stem cell transplant that required another 62-day stay in the hospital.
“The treatment is fairly short for neuroblastoma,” Brett explained, “but it’s powerful. It was sort of the nuclear war model of treating cancer. Some cancer requires small doses over a long period of time, but Charlie’s cancer required high doses for a short time, so the whole process was only about 14 or 15 months. We were told if she survived the treatment, she would have a good chance of surviving the cancer.”
Throughout the treatment process, Charlie had five rounds of chemotherapy, surgery, the stem cell transplant, radiation treatment and immunotherapy. She completed her last chemotherapy session in 2013. Having achieved five years in remission, Charlie is considered a survivor of neuroblastoma and returns to Children’s annually for cancer check-ups and as needed for follow-ups on chemo-related conditions.
“Children’s hospital saved my daughter’s life,” Brett said. “Those people have become like family to us. With pediatric cancer, you have the same doctors and nurses following you through the process. The nurses were not just her nurses, but also her friends. Charlie was a 3-year-old child who couldn’t have any child interaction because of immunity protections. At times, the doctors and nurses were her playmates and our therapists. We all got close and went through the process together.”
When Charlie was 6, she wanted to dance. Since she had completed her chemo, the doctors said she could be around other children and begin lessons. “Now she’s on two competitive teams and was one of the top performers at camp this year,” Brett said.
She also speaks to groups about her experience and helps with fundraising for other families through the Charlie Jean Foundation, which was established in her honor and provides financial assistance for the families of children battling cancer.
“She has been on the news and has spoken at church,” Brett said. “A story not told is not of use to the world, so we try to use her story to educate and help others. We feel like that’s what she was destined for.”