10-year-old’s positive outlook, despite cancer, inspires hope for future

By Tammy Keith Originally Published October 13, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 11, 2013 at 4:01 p.m.
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Nick Hillemann

Maddie Windle, 10, holds her dog Hazel in her lap at her home in Aplin near Perryville. Maddie was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a type of kidney cancer, two years ago. Despite the small odds of it reoccurring, her doctor said, she now has cancer for the third time. Maddie enjoys reading and playing cards, and “loves animals,” she said.

Maddie Windle, 10, loves the animals on her family’s farm and wants to be a veterinarian some day, but first she has to beat cancer — for the third time.

Two years ago, Maddie was diagnosed with kidney cancer, Wilms’ tumor, which was supposed to be the easy cancer.

“Doctors said if you have to draw a childhood cancer out of the bag, this is the one you want,” said her mother, Gina Windle. “It’s very treatable; it responds well.”

Instead, Maddie’s cancer is among the small percentage of Wilms’ tumor that is aggressive, and it has invaded her little body and won’t let go — yet.

Maddie, the daughter of Gina and Brad Windle of Aplin, attended Anne Watson Elementary School in Bigelow, but she’s being home-schooled for fifth grade because of her health.

Gina, a guidance counselor at Bigelow High School, took an unpaid leave of absence for the remainder of the year to teach Maddie and to take her to doctor’s visits and chemotherapy treatments.

Her husband took catastrophic leave last year from his job with the Arkansas Forestry Commission in Perry County.

It was her dad, Maddie remembers, who insisted that they take her to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in March 2011 when they thought her pain might be appendicitis.

“It was third grade, and I was in school, and my side had been hurting for a while, and my mom was just telling me it was growing pains or something,” Maddie said. “My side just started hurting so, so bad, and I just started crying.”

Her classroom teacher sent her to the nurse, who called Gina.

“Mom came down. Her and my dad came to my school, and they thought it was just appendicitis,” Maddie said.

When they started discussing hospitals, “Dad said, ‘No, we’re taking her to Children’s,’” Maddie said.

She said it took a long time to get X-ray results.

“So, whenever they came back and they said I had cancer, … I didn’t really know what it was. I had so many questions. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a surgery, or they were going to have to give some sort of medicine, or what. I was just so confused. Now, I basically know everything there is to know about it,” Maddie said matter-of-factly.

Gina said Maddie’s cancer was Stage 4, “because it had progressed beyond her [right] kidney to her lung and lymph nodes.”

The doctors attempted to remove her kidney, which is where a Wilms’ tumor begins, but so much tissue surrounding it was involved in the tumor that they stopped.

She first had chemo and radiation to shrink the tumor.

Maddie had her kidney removed in May 2011, when she was 8.

That should have been the end of it. They thought it was.

Gina said Maddie finished radiation and chemo in October 2011.

“We were in complete remission,” Gina said. “It was gone; it was wonderful.”

Gina, Brad and Maddie, an only child, took a vacation to the beach and came back in July 2012 for Maddie to have a scan.

“Her hair was growing back; she was the vision of health,” Gina said.

But Maddie’s oncologist, Dr. Kimo Stine, told them the cancer had returned and was in both of Maddie’s lungs and her lymph nodes.

The bubble of remission was good while it lasted.

“You get your life back; it’s normal,” Gina said. “We were going to church; we were having sleepovers. It’s normal; you’re not having to keep a backpack ready to go to the hospital.”

“Maddie was very upset because chemo is not a fun thing to go through,” Gina said.

“Well, some of the kinds are bad, and some of them aren’t,” Maddie said of the chemotherapy. “Some of them make me really nauseous; some of them make me really cold; some of them make me feel bad – they all do, basically.”

Maddie said it was a good day when she heard she was in remission.

“I was very excited and happy that day. Then when I came in for a scan, just a routine scan, something showed up on the scan, and I had three little spots, one on my lymph node, about 2 inches big, others inside my lungs — they were about an inch.

“I was really devastated, I didn’t know what to think. Then I had a little needle biopsy thing — it’s not a big deal — it’s hardly considered surgery,” Maddie said.

It was a Wilms’ tumor, and she had another year of chemotherapy — aggressive chemo, Gina said, that weakened her daughter’s immune system.

Maddie was given radiation to her chest at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center.

“And then they said I didn’t have it anymore,” Maddie said.

It was time to celebrate again.

Gina said Maddie finished her treatment in August, and they had a routine scan on Sept. 11.

Brad had gone to get pizza, which Maddie loves.

While he was gone, the news came that the scan showed a similar spot in a lymph node in her chest.

“Dr. Stine was just in disbelief,” Gina said. “He said, ‘I’ve read cases where this happens, but it’s very rare. I want to tell you it’s a fluke … a pocket of infection,’” Gina said, “but it was obvious there was something.”

Maddie was optimistic.

“Whenever we heard that it may have come back but they weren’t really sure yet, I thought, it’s probably something easy like pneumonia, because it’s really rare for Wilms’ to come back three times,” Maddie said. “My doctor said only a fraction of a fraction come back.”

On Sept. 13, Maddie underwent a needle biopsy, and after a weekend of hoping it was a fluke, results on Sept. 17 confirmed it was cancer.

“When Dr. Stine told her the news that it was back, she was just devastated,” Gina said of her daughter. “She broke down; she was just sobbing.

“Maddie said, ‘Well, it’s just going to be that much longer till I get my hair back.’

“I said, ‘That’s OK. We’ve had it and lost it; had it and lost it,’” Gina said.

“We are blessed through her. We don’t get the whining and the complaining. She’s just awesome through it all.”

Gina said the doctor hugged Maddie after the bad news.

“He’s such a compassionate, caring man, and he’s a brilliant man, too,” Gina said. “We’re very blessed to have him on our side.”

Gina said Stine consulted with other experts and developed a plan.

On Sept. 18, the family went to Arkansas Children’s Hospital and stayed five days for Maddie to get chemo.

She’ll cycle through chemotherapy for three months, but not the most aggressive type.

“Her immune system is not as compromised this time,” Gina said.

Maddie’s own stem cells will be harvested. At the end of three months – around Christmastime — she will undergo some “really aggressive” chemo, Gina said.

“It wipes out all her past immunizations; it wipes out a lot. The goal is to wipe out the bad, because for some reason, the bad stuff is still hanging out in there.”

Gina said Stine told Maddie, “It’s like doing a hard-system restart on your iPad.”

Maddie will get her own stem cells back, which avoids complications that can come with donor cells.

She will be in inpatient isolation for four to eight weeks after that.

When her parents come to see her, they will have to wear infection-control gowns and masks.

“She’s going to be like an infant, basically, probably even weaker. It’s amazing that it even exists — the capacity to do this,” Gina said.

It isn’t something a 10-year-old should have to do, but Maddie has a mature outlook.

“I know I’m going to get through it,” Maddie said. “It’s really hard sometimes, but I know since the doctors and nurses are so good at the hospital I go to, and the chemo works so well and just everything they do, … I’m going to get through it.

“I mean, I’m not real excited about it,” she said. “I know that’s what they have to do.”

Gina said she shares their story in hope of helping others.

“If we can use this to benefit other people, we’re going to,” she said.

“There are far too many parents who are in our shoes. It’s not a place anybody would choose to be.”

Gina only has one answer when asked what the family needs: “We need prayer,” she said.

A fundraiser was held early in this journey, but no bank account has been established, to her knowledge, Gina said.

They were a two-income family, and now they have one.

“God’s faithful, and he’s going to provide for us, so we’re going to be OK,” she said. “Somebody told me the other day, ‘If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will.’ We have faith that we’re going to be taken care of.”

Maddie said she misses seeing her friends at school, but she can still play with the animals on their farm — four dogs, three cats, two rabbits, a horse — and she’s thinking about getting a fish.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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