KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eighth-grader Kendra Littlejohn is grateful to be back in class at South Valley Middle School in Liberty.
She's returning to some normalcy after a journey she never expected to be on.
One of the first signs came when she decided to try cross country last year.
“I felt sick all the time and tired,” Kendra recalled.
Then, it was time for wrestling, the sport she loved.
“I kinda like being tougher than a lot of the boys at my school,” she said.
Kendra has been wrestling for years.
“And she was just fierce, like, she wants to do it,” her mom, Katherine Littlejohn said.
Her coaches appreciate her attitude toward the sport.
“I’m a little biased, but it’s probably one of the hardest sports you can do,” said middle school wrestling coach Troy Parks.
“She doesn’t give up any excuses,” assistant wrestling coach Ben Fiedler added.
A different wrestler
The coaches said the Kendra who came back to wrestle last fall was different. They said she was taking many more breaks than usual.
"Well, my stomach would hurt a lot and I feel like I would have headaches,” Kendra explained.
The family had already noticed a bit of a change and talked with doctors.
"Over the summer, we had been to our primary care doctor and we had shared concerns about bleeding,” Katherine said.
But Katherine admits that as a mom and dad, it was tough for them to know what changes were normal or not for their growing teenage daughter.
"We were like, hey what’s with your attitude? Like, did you eat today?” Katherine said. “I honestly was just trying to parent her. I was just trying to be like, 'This is the clear expectation. We expect you to work hard.'"
Things kept getting worse.
"Then there was one practice where it got really bad kinda where she was shaking and her eyes were kind of doing weird things,” Coach Parks recalled.
Kendra’s coaches decided they had to talk to her mom.
"I walked her down there and that’s when I said, ‘Hey, something’s wrong like this isn’t normal for her. I think she needs to go to the doctor and get checked out,'" Parks said.
Katherine agreed and took Kendra to get checked out.
After a trip to the doctor and some tests, Kendra wanted to go back to practice the next day — but then the doctor called.
“She said ‘Kendra’s hemoglobin is dangerously low. Wherever she is right now, you need to go home and you need to go get her,’” Katherine remembered.
“I was super irritated because I was missing practice,” Kendra said.
Next came a trip to the hospital and a shocking discovery. Kendra had an invasive, ovarian tumor called Dysgerminoma that no one knew was there.
“Eighteen centimeters, so I would say, maybe a small cantaloupe,” said Dr. Joy Fulbright, a pediatric hematology oncologist who treated Kendra at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “It is not uncommon for it to take a long time to figure out what’s going on because pediatric cancers are rare. So it’s very often that symptoms have been occurring for months. So I always tell parents, don’t feel guilty.”
Kendra started chemotherapy treatment and then surgery.
“They took the left ovary out and were able to keep the uterus and right ovary,” Kendra explained.
“They started using the word cancer after her surgery,” Katherine said.
For Kendra, that's when the realness of the situation began to take hold.
"I wasn’t really worried about any of it until I heard that I had cancer,” she said. “I kind of feel like the scariest part to me was losing all of my hair."
The people in her life tried to make that part a little easier.
“We kind of made a deal with her. I would shave my beard if she was gonna lose her hair,” Coach Fiedler said.
That’s just one of the many ways her family says the community surrounded them. They were met with visits, gifts, letters, prayers and most importantly, hope.
“I don’t think you know how many people have cared and prayed over us like I would say thousands of people in this community know about it,” Katherine said.
Hope on the horizon
After Kendra's surgery came wonderful news.
“All of her pathology came back negative. No signs of tumor so we call that remission,” Fulbright said.
For the Littlejohns, a conversation earlier in the summer with their doctor about menstrual bleeding was one thing that helped them all connect the dots.
Katherine said the other major factor was that Kendra's coaches noticed something and spoke up.
“I really feel like those men saved her life by saying to me, ‘Could you please take her to the doctor? We just don’t think something’s right,'" she said.
“Our job is to kind of recognize those things no matter what sport and ask questions and be involved,” Parks said. “Just excited to see her growth and where she ends up.”
So are the Littlejohns.
“I’m definitely going to do high school wrestling. Cannot wait,” Kendra said with a grin.
“You can’t do this life without having people around you to support you and taking the time to notice people,” Katherine added.
Kendra has since been able to get back into sports and recently had her first track meet.
Katherine said seeing her daughter run around and laugh again is a breath of fresh air.
"Life is perfect," she said.
Advice for other families
Dr. Fulbright explained what to watch for that could mean it’s time to see a doctor.
“Menstrual irregularities, and that’s kind of hard to know when you’re a teenager and you’re never really had normal menstrual cycles," she said.
Fulbright said bleeding more or less often, having to change a pad or tampon more than every hour and stomach pain can all be signs that it's time to see a doctor.
“A lot of times though, ovarian tumors can be pretty silent as they grow depending on what hormones they secrete. So sometimes it’s really hard to tell that that’s what’s going on. But having those symptoms and then the fatigue," she went on. “Your hemoglobin is part of your red blood cells and it carries your oxygen in your body, so when it goes low you start feeling tired.”
Kendra's hemoglobin count is what confirmed the symptoms were pointing to something wrong.
“Kendra came into, in from her primary care doctor into our ER because her hemoglobin was down to 4.2 and you’re normally around 12 or 13, so it’s not a surprise that she was feeling tired,” Fulbright explained.
For parents, Fulbright added to make sure you take your child to regular check-ups with their doctor.
“And as they get older, make sure you leave the room so they can have frank discussions with their doctor. Between the ages of 12 and 14 I think that’s really important," she finished.