A theme runs throughout Chelsea Clark’s Franklin home.
T-shirts and wristbands implore people to stay “ChelseaStrong.” Orange, the official color of the leukemia awareness campaign, is the prevailing tone.
A paper chain made of orange and yellow construction paper carries personalized messages of “Stay strong, Chelsea,” “You are Amazing” and “Keep on Fighting.”
For the past two months, 12-year-old Chelsea Clark has been going through chemotherapy to treat leukemia. She and her family have leaned on friends, family and classmates at Custer Baker Intermediate School to help.
THE CLARK FILE
Name: Chelsea Clark
Grade: Sixth grade at Custer Baker Intermediate School
Family: Parents, John and Jennifer; sisters, Maddie, 14, and Lily, 7
Interests: Volleyball, basketball, softball and drawing
HOW TO HELP
A benefit fund has been established for Chelsea Clark and her family to help with costs associated with her treatment for leukemia.
Checks can be sent to the fund at: Chelsea Strong Benefit Fund at Ameriana Bank Attn: Zach, 7435 W. U.S. 52, New Palestine, IN 46163.
T-shirts and rubber bracelets are being sold to support the fund. Email sizes and how many to firstname.lastname@example.org. T-shirts cost $10 and bracelets $2 each.
Their support system has taken the “ChuckStrong” motto that Indianapolis Colts’ coach Chuck Pagano used to inspire an entire fan base while he was being treated for leukemia.
Like Pagano, the Clarks hope their campaign can generate awareness about leukemia and unite the community.
“It makes it a lot easier just to get through,” said Jennifer Clark, Chelsea’s mother. “To see people come out and help, to go out of their way to do things, it’s amazing.”
Since her treatment started, Chelsea has been forced indoors most days. The chemotherapy has weakened her immune system, and being around large groups of people can be dangerous.
With the flu virus spreading, the family has been extremely careful about what she’s exposed to. Sometimes, the only opportunity she has to go outside is to walk their dogs, an Australian shepherd and a terrier mix.
Chelsea can’t go to classes at Custer Baker, so a tutor comes throughout the week to work with her for two or three hours. They go over the math, social studies and English lessons that she missed, and Chelsea completes the same assignments as her classmates.
The point is so that she doesn’t fall too far behind for when she can go back to school, Chelsea said.
“It’s better. I get to sleep in and don’t have to get up early,” she said.
The forced seclusion has been stifling for the youngster. She had become enamored in recent years with sports, playing on her school’s basketball and volleyball teams. During the summer she participated in the Franklin softball program.
When at home, she’d play outside with her sisters, 14-year-old Maddie and 7-year-old Lily.
All of that was put on hold when she was diagnosed with leukemia.
The Clark’s ordeal started in October. Chelsea seemed to be getting more and more tired every day. She couldn’t make it through an entire basketball practice and was constantly worn out. The school nurse at Custer Baker sent her home early when Chelsea complained of not being able to make it through the school day.
Her parents assumed it was allergies, since she also had a stuffy nose and congestion. When the sickness didn’t get better, and as Chelsea grew weaker and more pale, they began to worry it was something more serious.
A visit to her pediatrician indicated that the white and red blood cells usually prevalent in the body were missing in Chelsea. The Clarks were told to go to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health for further examination.
More blood was drawn to examine her white blood cells, and bone marrow was sampled. Both showed that leukemia cells were present throughout Chelsea’s body.
The final diagnosis was acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the blood. The disease caused Chelsea’s body to make a number of abnormal blood cells that multiply quickly.
“She had 15 percent leukemia cells in her bloodstream,” Jennifer Clark said. “They told us the cells multiply so rapidly, so much so that they crowd out the white blood cells. That’s why she was so pale and so tired.”
Dr. Kenneth Lazarus, her pediatric oncologist, was particularly concerned with her spinal column.
If leukemia cells are present in the spinal fluid, the cancer easily can spread to the brain stem, Jennifer Clark said.
So far, after repeated tests, no leukemia has been found in the spinal column.
With acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the first course of action is chemotherapy.
Once a week, Chelsea gets her blood drawn to check her white and red blood cells. If her blood counts are too low, they have to wait until her body can handle the dose of medication.
Additional medications are prescribed for nausea and other side effects of the chemotherapy.
Dr. Eric Yancy took over Chelsea’s case once treatment started. At this point, chemotherapy is the only treatment scheduled, Yancy said. Chelsea’s body has responded well to the drugs, and the cancer hasn’t spread.
For four weeks in December and January, Chelsea also received treatment at home. John and Jennifer Clark would need to administer a dose of chemotherapy into her port themselves. Needles had to be sterilized, the area around the surgically implanted port was cleaned, and the medication had to be handled carefully.
“There are still some things that we’re still getting the hang of. Things need to be cleaned, and there’s a whole process behind it,” Jennifer Clark said.
Though the process is tedious and leaves Chelsea uncomfortable and feeling ill, she did come up with one advantage. Since the spinal taps she receives give her a headache, the doctor recommended caffeine to help take the edge off it.
“She’d get a Mountain Dew or Pepsi, which we don’t usually allow otherwise. So she saw that as a bonus,” John Clark said.
While the family has been at its lowest point, the people around them scrambled to do everything they could to support them.
Her sixth-grade basketball team started chanting “ChelseaStrong” before games. The team dedicated an entire game to Chelsea and the “ChelseaStrong” theme. Money raised during the game went to aid the Clark family with expenses health insurance didn’t cover. More than $5,200 was raised.
A similar fundraiser also was organized at Franklin Community High School girls basketball games. Friends organized a free-throw shooting contest. T-shirts and rubber bracelets were sold around Custer Baker.
Since Chelsea couldn’t attend the events, they set up a Skype account, allowing her to witness what was going on and speak to everyone taking part.
“It was truly inspiring to see so many join together to show Chelsea and her family how much we care. We are proud to be ‘ChelseaStrong,’” said Brenda Crauder, principal at the school.
One Custer Baker teacher shaved his head. Another allowed himself to be duct-taped to the wall by whichever class raised the most money.
“That was pretty funny,” Chelsea said. “Everyone’s been pretty nice. They really helped me a lot.”
Chelsea will have to continue chemotherapy for another two years. The treatment schedule will start spreading out, with doctor’s appointments every two weeks, then every month. But she’ll need to keep getting the medication to ensure all the leukemia cells have been killed in her body.
So far, the response has been good.
Chelsea’s body technically is in remission, and her immune system has regenerated enough that she’ll soon be able to start socializing with people again. But the family understands they have a long way to go before a true sense of normalcy can resume.
That makes the support they’ve received from the people around them even more special.
“I didn’t realize how negative a person I was, until I was so surprised by the amount of good in the community,” John Clark said.