Parents of small children often worry about their wee one’s health during those early years. It is mom and dad’s natural wish for their kids to be lucky enough to grow up without facing any major issues. Unfortunately, this would not be the case for Kansas couple Al and Erin Harris. In July 2016 the 40-somethings’ toddler received a devastating diagnosis. Nonetheless, following a grueling battle, the little girl survived to reach a growth milestone in January 2018. A point where the whole family could take emotional stock of the trauma they had all endured over the last 18 months.
Residents in the city of Olathe, KS, the Harrises are proud parents to a quartet of kids – Kane, 13, Roan, 12, Blythe, seven, and little Teig who is just four. Erin works as an emergency room nurse, and the 42-year-old mom can boast more than a decade of experience in that caring vocation. Meanwhile 44-year-old Al is a computer scientist and was due to start what his wife has called his “dream” job up in Illinois in the summer of 2016. However, at the last minute, everything dramatically changed.
While walking around Home Depot with her family one day in mid-July, little Teig’s left ear started to bleed. This prompted her parents to book the then two-year-old in for a doctor’s appointment, where the professional opinion was that the toddler was suffering from a nasty ear infection. With that in mind, Teig was scheduled for a routine operation to fix the issue on July 19, 2016, at the Children’s Mercy Hospital, located on the Missouri side of Kansas City.
Al later took up the story, appearing on NBC’s Today Show in January 2018. “The procedure was supposed to take 30 minutes, but just six minutes later, they came to get us,” the father recalled. “My wife, who is an emergency room nurse, knew it was a bad sign. And when we got in there, there were two doctors waiting for us. That was a really bad sign.”
It turned out that during Teig’s operation, the surgical team had discovered a cancerous mass in the left side of her face. Al and Erin were later told it was rhabdomyosarcoma, a very rare but extremely aggressive form of cancer which attacks the soft connecting tissues in muscles. The disease is usually found in controlling muscle groups, mainly in the head, neck, arms and legs.
Devastatingly, Teig’s rhabdomyosarcoma was deeply embedded into the bone of her left cheek and jaw muscles, while also affecting her nasal cavity and the ear on that side of her head. Given the cancer’s position, the growth was incredibly close to the sick toddler’s brain, but thankfully the cancer had not spread that far.
Less thankfully, due to its awkward location in poor Teig’s face, specialists viewed the removal of the rhabdomyosarcoma through surgery as an impossibility. Instead, they advised Al and Erin that a year’s worth of treatment would hopefully clear the cancer completely. With that in mind, little Teig’s radiotherapy and chemotherapy courses started immediately.
But, of course, it all came with a terrible emotional cost for the Harris family. Indeed, Al had to face up to some stiff challenges when Teig’s treatment grew in intensity. “It’s pretty hard to watch your child go through that,” he recalled to the Today Show audience. “I remember when her hair started falling out [because of the] chemotherapy. No matter how much I read, no matter how much I prepared, I wasn’t ready to watch her eyebrows fall out.”
As for Erin, she described what her daughter was going in those early stages in greater detail on a crowdfunding website. In July 2016, she set up a GoFundMe page to help raise cash to meet the poorly toddler’s medical expenses. “Teig requires round-the-clock treatment,” the mom said. “She has a Mediport in her chest for chemo and IV medicines.” She then explained that, “A Mediport is an access point below the skin that has a tube running directly into the heart.”
Erin went on, “[Teig] also has a MIC-KEY button feeding tube in her stomach for medicines and tube feedings since she eats very little. She has almost daily doctors appointments for either radiation or chemotherapy, sometimes both.” And it seemed that this regime had turned life upside down for Al and Erin. As mom continued, “Because of these special needs [Teig] can’t go to daycare or have a normal babysitter, one of us has to be home with her at all times.”
In September 2016, following eight weeks of radiotherapy for Teig, Al updated the GoFundMe page about his daughter’s progress. He confirmed that the radiation therapy was now over but said that Teig could expect to face chemotherapy sessions over the next 12 months. Indeed, the toddler’s battle with rhabdomyosarcoma continued well into 2017, but the Harrises finally received some good news later that year.
In July 2017, Teig had her last round of chemotherapy, before mercifully being declared cancer-free that November. Now that the now four-year-old’s system was no longer full of highly toxic chemicals, her hair started to grow back. And in January 2018, Teig was ready for her very first haircut – a significant milestone in the eyes of most parents, but for Erin and Al, one filled with a powerful extra resonance.
Indeed, the mom of four appeared on the ABC-affiliated local Kansas City channel KMBC in January 2018 to talk about it. “[Teig] was diagnosed when she was two years old, so she never got her first haircut,” Erin explained. “With her type of cancer, we were worried that, you know, her odds were not as good. Having her hair grow back and seeing her healthy is really important.”
Erin added, “Getting her first haircut, and kind of getting her on the road to being well, made this a big deal for us.” However, Teig’s courageous fight may not be over yet, as her doctors have said that there is still a 45-percent chance of the cancer returning in a mutated fashion. And – understandably – the dread prospect is a hard one for Al to shake.
Consequently, even a joyous occasion, such as his daughter’s first trip to the hairdressers, was difficult for the dad.“It’s a mixed feeling,” Al told the Today Show. “We’re happy because she’s happy and she’s recovered… but it brings back a lot of bad memories. I frequently think, ‘What if this is the last year?’ And even as I’m watching the haircut, in the back of my mind, the thoughts linger. It’s a thing that clouds over you.”
And, sadly, Al’s fears for the future do not end there. He also spoke on camera about the terrible physical consequences for Teig, following the strident tactics employed to fight her rhabdomyosarcoma. “The other problem is our aggressive treatment did massive damage to her,” Al admitted. “Her back teeth were rotted away by radiation, and those were permanent teeth, so we put in caps.”
And there were other cosmetic considerations for the Harrises to address. “[Radiation] also killed her cheekbone, so we have to decide how much asymmetry is okay versus how many surgeries are we going to have to put her through,” Al continued to the Today Show viewers. “Her pituitary gland was also damaged, which affects her growth. We have to decide how much do we want her to grow versus how much plastic surgery do we want to put her through?”
Nevertheless, despite all these concerns, Al and Erin found time to focus some of their attention on another matter following confirmation of Teig’s remission. They learned that a grand total of four percent of America’s cancer-research resources are used investigating the disease in children. With that in mind, these days, the Harrises are looking to raise public awareness around this potentially tragic issue of under-resourcing.
To this end, Al and Erin invited the media along to celebrate their youngest child’s first haircut that January day. And her dad used the occasion to make a shocking allegation concerning his daughter’s treatment. “Children’s cancer for rhabdomyosarcoma, which is what Teig had, the newest drug we had was about 40-45 years old,” he claimed to KMBC.
However, while mom and dad Harris continued their fight against childhood cancer, Teig herself was just happy to enjoy her first haircut. Not that the tot got away without a little loving parental advice when she climbed into the chair. “[Teig] wanted her head shaved to look [like she did during chemo]… She doesn’t remember having hair,” Al explained on the Today Show. “We told her, ‘Let’s try a pixie cut first!’”