TAMPA – Callie Peck and Lauren Staples have packed a lifetime of memories into their few short years.
Callie, 4, is a ballerina. She’s a swimmer. She’s a dancer.
Lauren, 3, loves to sing. She plays dress up and is also a dancer.
They also make really great lemonade. More on that later.
Both suffer from leukemia, basically cancer of the blood. Both are in remission and on a 26-month clock before they are declared clear of the disease. But they have spent a lifetime battling an illness no child deserves.
The worst moment is when their parents take them to the hospital. That’s when the girls know there will be needles and chemotherapy. That’s when the tears start to fall. The moms, Amber Peck and Jennifer Staples, know their kids are young and, once the leukemia goes away, will hopefully have no memories of these days.
Still, when the girls get close to the entrance of All Children’s Hospital, eyes that should be filled with dreams become eyes filled with the terror of knowing what is in store for them that day.
“I hear her starting to cry when she understands where she is going,’’ Amber said. “We’ll never forget the screams from the first time she had to get treated. She screamed and cried and begged us to help her when the doctors were injecting her. She’s getting a little better with it but she knows when she gets to the hospital what is going to happen.’
Jennifer deals with the same scene. “She gets this panic in her voice when she sees the nurses with the wheelchair coming out for her. She starts to cry when we get to the hospital parking lot because of the needles and medications that make her feel bad. It’s hard to be brave sometimes.’’
Callie and Lauren, with help from their moms and dads, Scott Peck and Will Staples, are hosting TuTu Cute for Leukemia at TPC Tampa Bay on Nov. 1. Lauren and Callie aren’t quite ready to tee it up at the TPC, but they will have their tutus on as they serve lemonade at their stand by the first tee.
The next night, they will take part in the Light the Night Walk, which starts at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk is the corporate chairman of the Light the Night Walk. So far the girls have raised more than $25,000 for leukemia research.
Both are in remission, but there are still a lot of fingers crossed that it’s gone for good.
Last December, Lauren woke up with a “tummy ache.’’ She spent much of the next month at the hospital and then, only days after she turned 3, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her bone marrow was so full of leukemia cells that doctors had a hard time figuring out which kind of leukemia it was. ► The disease comes in many ugly ways and, while it is not necessarily genetic, it doesn’t discriminate by age. ◄
The doctors told Lauren’s parents that there would be a two-year trip to recovery. The first 18 days in the hospital consisted of steroids and chemotherapy. Lauren lost her hair, but after the first month, the Staples family was told that the cancer was in remission. It hasn’t been easy since. There are still needles and painful procedures. Lauren may scream, cry and flail away at the nurses, but Jennifer said her bravery and courage is an inspiration.
“The first time she cried, ‘Ouch, you’re hurting me,’ I almost died,’’ Jennifer said. “I went into complete shock. After a while you just want to say that it is what it is, but it’s not that easy.”
Callie started suffering from small bruises that couldn’t be explained. It is a common symptom, but not to parents. Callie was diagnosed with what Amber describes as “good” leukemia and one that could be cured with more than two years of treatment. Like Lauren, Callie screamed that first day in the hospital as doctors prodded her with needled and medication. She had just started to learn to walk and couldn’t any longer. She also ► had her head shaved for the chemo and ◄ would panic when anyone came near her with a stethoscope. She was given 56 doses of steroids and her body began to swell to the point where she was unrecognizable.
For Lauren and Callie to remain emotionally strong, their parents have had to be just as strong.
“At first I felt like I would never smile again,’’ Amber said. “The mind can go into a dark place, but if you start to hate the world, you child will grow up that way. If I had cancer at her age, they would have put me in a chair and let me die. Things have changed, so it’s easier to handle things, but we have to make sure to never let her see us cry.”
Both girls are in the middle of the 26-month window before they can be considered cured. They should be able to live normal lives and none of their parents are keeping any secrets from them.
Besides their parents, the girls also have their siblings to support them. Callie has two brothers, Gavin and Cole, and Lauren has one brother, Owen. All three boys are in perfect health.
The girls are comfortable with their extremely short hair and have had nothing but support from their young friends.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at the TPC Tampa Bay, the girls showed up with their parents and brothers. They were wearing their tutus and dancing around the golf course while their parents tried to explain what started out as a nightmare and looks like it will end up with a happy ending.
Except ► Expect ◄ for their hair, Callie and Lauren were just two little girls playing in the sunshine, smiling and laughing with many good times waiting for them. ► for a long time. ◄ There will still be tears, but they will be regular tears that little girls are expected to shed. There also will be tears of joy.
For more on the TuTu Cute for Leukemia Golf Tournament and the Light the Night Walk, call Amber Peck at (813) 843-0703. If you play, make sure to check out the lemonade.