By Albert Leung, Staff Writer
Most 11-year-old girls would be gearing up for school, buying pencils, binders and their favorite Jonas Brothers folders. But for one young lady from Shoreview, the beginning of September doesn't mean the first day of middle school. Rather for young Amy Cao, it's another session of an experimental, invasive chemotherapy treatment in a continued battle against an aggressive brain tumor.
It started on her 10th birthday when Amy suddenly experienced headaches, nausea, and a seizure, prompting her parents Nancy and Jian Cao to rush their little girl to the emergency room. After nearly a month of examinations, tests and countless doctor appointments, doctors still were not sure what caused these symptoms.
"When we went to the emergency room the doctors thought it was just an inflammation," Amy's mother Nancy Yu said. "We found out that Boston's Children's Hospital was one of the nation's most prominent health institutions so we took Amy there to be looked at."
Amy and her parents traveled to Boston, Massachusetts in July 2007, where doctors examined Amy and her brain scans to find that she, in fact, had a brain tumor.
"We were completely shocked when we found out about Amy's illness. We don't even know of any family members who had brain tumors," Nancy said. "Amy has always been very healthy. She hardly even had any colds or the flu before this."
She underwent surgery immediately in Boston and then returned to the University of Minnesota where she was given chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
After finishing her first line of treatment, it looked as if the tumor was subsiding. Then after a routine brain scan in March 2008, doctor's found that Amy's tumor recurred. She and her parents again flew to Boston for another surgery. The now 11 year old is receiving second line treatment which means her treatments involve experimental methods.
Using experimental drugs and treatments yield a higher risk of side effects. One of the first drugs doctors tried, for example, caused a hemorrhage in Amy's brain. She had to have emergency surgery in June of this year to drain the blood and then another surgery following that.
"Amy has been really brave through all this. She's been a real trooper," Nancy said. "Her bravery during this experience has really inspired a lot of people."
While receiving treatment, the bright-eyed Amy was forced to miss most of the 5th grade and was assigned a tutor to help her keep up on her studies. She also had to quit her track & field team at school, swimming activities and cultural dancing at the Chinese American Association of Minnesota (CAAM).
Though Amy could not attend school and see her friends regularly, her work ethic and determination has not faltered.
"Despite missing so many days at school, Amy still did exceptionally on her state task exams. In fact, her grades have been better than they were when she was in school regularly," laments Nancy.
The incoming Chippewa Middle School sixth-grader has remained busy throughout the summer with daily visits to the University of Minnesota for radiation treatments. During her free time, however, Amy continues to casually play her piano which she first started playing six years ago, and reads a heavy dose of her favorite genre of books -- fantasy. Two of Amy's favorite summer reads include Cornelia Funke's Dragon Rider and Karen Hesse's Music of the Dolphins.
"I don't know why I like fantasy books. I just like them," Amy explained. "I also like art too."
Aside from stories involving unicorns and dragons, Amy's interests have also recently turned to the medical world. Having met and interacted with several types of physicians and learning some medical knowledge, Amy is determined to pursue a future as a specialized medical doctor.
"Amy told me one day that she wanted to become a pediatric anesthesiologist. I'm not sure why she chose that but I think she must have met a really nice pediatric anesthesiologist during her surgeries," Nancy said.
Word of her medical profession dream traveled to the Association of Minnesota Chinese Physicians (AMCP). Upon learning Amy's story, the group decided to do something special for the young girl and induct her as an honorary member, bestowing to her a certificate and a stethoscope. To date, Amy is the youngest member in the group's four year history.
Medical bills have become a struggling point for the Cao family since health insurers tend to cover very little of the cost incurred for experimental treatment. Along with support from the AMCP, the Cao family has also received help from various organizations including CAAM, the Turtle Lake Elementary Parent Teacher Association and the family's church, The Twins Cities Chinese Christian Church. These organizations and many family friends have banned together to fundraise and help alleviate some of the financial burden from the mounting medical bills, allowing them to concentrate on and spend more time with Amy.