Audrey Napper and her family had just returned from a vacation to Disney World.
At 5, she had collected memories from the vacation that would last her a lifetime. But within a matter of weeks, she and her family were facing a battle that would push the world of Disney characters far into the past.
Audrey was diagnosed on March 3, 2010, with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer, triggering a series of chemotherapy and radiation-therapy treatments that will last well into next year.
"She began to feel ill with flu symptoms in February," said Audrey's father, Neil Napper. "She was hospitalized a couple of times before we saw a tumor beginning to grow on her neck. That's when they did a full-body scan and found the rest of it."
Audrey seemed perfectly healthy prior to those initial symptoms, but doctors began an immediate regimen of treatments at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
"She began treatments on March 3 and will continue until May of 2011," Neil said from Burlington Monday morning. "Most weeks she has treatment every two or three days; sometimes it's as many as seven days. We average about 20 days of treatments each month."
Audrey's mom, Melissa Napper, spends each night with her daughter in Burlington. Neil travels to Burlington every morning and returns home to Cadyville in the evening to spend time with Audrey's baby brother, Henry, 2. Melissa will often go home to see Henry during the day when Neil is with Audrey.
Henry stays with his grandparents, Mary and Randy Napper, during the day.
"We're handling it like any parent, as best we can," Neil said. "When she's doing well, we're doing well, and then the opposite (when Audrey isn't having a good day). But she's such a strong-willed girl. She gives us a lot of strength."
Neil calls his daughter very energetic. She has been upbeat throughout the ordeal, he said.
"She loves to draw and paint, and she likes music. She has a little white horse at home named Daiquiri that she just loves, and she enjoys playing with her baby brother."
Thus far, doctors are very pleased with her response to treatments. They had focused on several cancerous spots when they began treatments and are now down to fighting one specific area, Neil noted.
"She had originally lost an extreme amount of weight, but she's back up to her target weight now. She had lost her ability to eat by mouth and to speak for almost four months, but she's doing both now.
"Things are much more positive than they had been, but her long-term prognosis is up in the air until the end of treatments, which is several months away."
Neil works at Dannemora Correctional Facility. His co-workers have donated vacation time, so he can continue to be with Audrey on a daily basis through October. He and Melissa also owned Bulls RV Sales in Cadyville but had to close the business to concentrate their efforts on their daughter's recovery.
Friends and family will offer their support with a fundraiser this coming Sunday at the Old Assumption of Mary School in Redford.
"Neil's my younger brother, and as an older sister, I've always been able to look out for him," said Tammi Reil. "We all felt so helpless now, but this fundraiser is something that we can do to support what they are going through."
The fundraiser will include a bake sale, spaghetti dinner and several area bands, including Ross Mafia, Movin' On and Nite Train. No alcoholic beverages will be allowed, and a carnival featuring bouncy houses, games and face painting will be available for the kids.
Area racer Chad Blair will be on hand with his race car dedicated to the American Cancer Society. A memorial and honorary balloon release will also be held.
"Audrey is in radiation this week and won't be able to come, but we will be videotaping for her," Reil said.
E-mail Jeff Meyers at: firstname.lastname@example.org