Rounding the Bases

Alaina Kenney finds cancer journey leading her back home

An active 9-year-old couldn’t have asked for a better summer.

Alaina Kenney enjoyed playing softball in the perfect, hot summer sun. She loved boating and tubing frequently on Rough River Lake with her family. After one particularly perfect day, Alaina spent the night with her grandparents, who were planning to take her to school the next day. She went to bed tired and happy.

The next morning as she was getting ready for school, however, Alaina passed out in the hallway. EMTs transported her to Norton Children’s Hospital, where a mass in her abdomen was found to be pressing on her kidney. The compression spiked her blood pressure, resulting in a seizure.

“There had been no signs,” said Sherry Kenney, Alaina’s mom. “It hit us all like a ton of bricks. We had a perfect life. This is just not something you see coming.”

The Kenney family was quickly introduced to Mustafa Barbour, M.D., a pediatric hematologist/oncologist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine.

He diagnosed Alaina with neuroblastoma, a cancer that starts in early forms of nerve cells and that occurs most often in infants and children. Alaina’s had developed into an abdominal tumor that had spread to bone.

Dr. Barbour and team determined the best game plan for Alaina’s treatment was to shrink the tumor with chemotherapy before performing surgery. The tumor responded well, allowing the surgical team to completely remove the remaining cancer cells from Alaina’s abdomen.

Following surgery, two bone marrow transplants were planned to remove the remaining cancer cells. This is a long process which required Alaina and Sherry to spend weeks at a time at Norton Children’s Hospital.

After the sometimes-harrowing process, however, by January 2021, there were no remaining signs of cancer, and Alaina got to go home for good.

“The HemOnc doctors, Dr. Barbour and the whole staff on 7 West – they saved our family,” Sherry said, referring to the Addison Jo Blair Cancer Care Center at Norton Children’s Hospital. “They are like angels. Talented. Compassionate. Smart. They are the ones who kept us afloat. I feel sometimes like they know my child better than I do.”

Making strides

Today, Alaina is back in virtual school while her recovery continues.

“I like to cook, shop and anything related to fashion,” Alaina said. “But I’m looking forward to getting back into gymnastics and softball.”

When asked about her time in the hospital, Alaina first mentions the positives.

“I liked watching movies with my grandpa,” she said. “I did not like getting my dressing changed!”

Sherry quickly pipes in to say how helpful the nurses were during that unpleasant task.

“They would rub her arm and head, ask about her cats by name and play videos of our cats and her favorite music. After we had been out of the hospital a while, Alaina said that she missed everyone and wanted to go back!”

While thankful that another inpatient hospital stay has not been necessary, the Kenneys still see Dr. Barbour regularly for routine scans and follow-up.

“We definitely feel a bond with Dr. Barbour,” Sherry said.

Looking ahead

Few people undergo a cancer journey without being changed in some way.

For Alaina, her experience has changed her view of her own future.

“I used to want to be a teacher or a vet,” she said. “Now I want to be a nurse.”

Given her experience, kindness and drive, having a nurse like Alaina in the world would certainly be a home run for all of us.