Music therapy gives young cancer patient new joy

Not long after Lana Dobson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, she learned she could no longer be a gymnast. Music therapy helped her find a new passion.

When acute lymphoblastic leukemia took away Lana Dobson’s greatest love — gymnastics — she was left with a void she thought she would never fill.

From age 4, gymnastics was Lana’s life. She practiced six days a week and excelled in competitions. By age 8, she was on a path to compete nationally, with her sights on the Junior Olympics.

Then, in 2016, at age 10, she injured her Achilles tendon during a warmup. When Lana’s pain wasn’t getting better, her orthopedic doctor ordered an MRI, which showed changes in the marrow of her leg bones. This led to a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She was immediately taken to Norton Children’s Hospital to start treatment.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia affects how injuries heal

“Our blood cells are produced in the hollow portions of the long bones in the body, called bone marrow,” said Michael Huang, M.D., Lana’s pediatric hematologist/oncologist with Norton Children’s Hospital and UofL Physicians. “In acute leukemia, the healthy blood cells are replaced and crowded out by large, unhealthy leukemia cells. Over time, this crowding out results in pain and the inability to properly heal from injury.”

“I remember thinking ‘Why?’” said Tiffany Dobson, Lana’s mom. “I know you aren’t supposed to ask that because we’ll never get the answer, but why? Why my child?”

As the family processed the news and the flood of emotions, they came to realize Lana’s passion for gymnastics was a blessing in disguise.

“She is such an athletic girl. Her body was so strong to get through this,” Tiffany said.

Music brings light to Lana’s darkness

Many staff members on the 7 West teen cancer unit helped the Dobsons through their first night at Norton Children’s Hospital. Two nurses in particular quickly made a deep impression on Lana and her family — Meg Garl and Sam Franke.

“Nurse Sam had cancer herself,” Tiffany said. “She sat with us, walked us through everything, gave us hugs and always made time for us. We knew Lana was in good hands.”

Even with great support and a skilled care team, Lana’s time in the hospital was not easy. The chemotherapy that was saving her was also causing damage to her legs.

Lana lost interest in the things she once loved. She didn’t want to eat or drink. It was a dark time.

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Music therapist Brett Northup checked in on Lana regularly, doing his best to persuade her to take her mind off cancer by picking up a musical instrument. It was a struggle, but finally, after months of trying, Brett’s persistence paid off. Lana picked up a ukulele that Brett had left in her room.

“I could see a glow return to her face. It lit her up,” Tiffany said. “She became Lana again.”

Turning gymnastics passion to music

Then, in December 2018, Lana was dealt another blow: She would not be able to return to gymnastics.

“I didn’t know what I would do,” Lana said. “Gymnastics was all I ever knew.”

She poured herself into expanding her skills on the ukulele and guitar. She realized that she had a new way to express herself — just like what gymnastics used to be for her.

“Music therapy helped me realize I could do something else,” Lana said. “I want other kids to know there are still ways to have fun.”

Joining a bigger family

Now, one year into remission, Lana can see beyond those dark days and wants to help other kids get through their challenges as they fight cancer. As the 2019 Chili’s® Clip for Kids honoree, Lana wants to let other families know that if she can get through it, they can too.

“When a child has cancer, that family becomes part of a bigger family,” Tiffany said. “We all have to come together for one another.”

That bigger family includes others on their own cancer journeys, as well as the caregivers at Norton Children’s Hospital, who dedicate themselves to providing not only lifesaving medical care but also crucial emotional support.

“The 7 West team is the family you never knew you needed — but that you know you always have,” Sam said.

Sam made such an impression on Lana that she is aspiring to become an oncology nurse.

“When I had cancer, I considered my nurses as heroes,” Sam said. “To know I touched a life in that way is an honor.”