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Young cancer survivor rings bell signifying treatment end

Sailor Parker writing her name on a wall sticker Seven-year-old Sailor Parker writes her name on a wall sticker after she rang the bell in the Brooke Army Medical Center Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic April 1, 2021, signifying she won her battle against Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (Photo by: Lori Newman, Brooke Army Medical Center).

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After a two-and-a-half-year battle with a rare childhood disease, one little girl has a big reason to celebrate.

Surrounded by her parents and a small group of medical staff, including Brooke Army Medical Center Commanding General Brig. Gen. Shan Bagby and Command Sgt. Maj. Thurman Reynolds, 7-year-old Sailor Parker recently rang the bell in the BAMC Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic signifying she won her battle against Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia.

"Sailor we are so proud of you and how well you have done with your treatment," said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Della Howell, pediatric hematologist/oncologist assigned to the Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston facility. "We couldn't have asked for a better patient."

According to the National Cancer Institute, childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, also called ALL or acute lymphocytic leukemia, is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

"This is the most common type of cancer in children and adolescents, but only happens at a rate of 34 per million in those who are under 20 years of age," explained Howell.

"In the past, before the advent of chemotherapy, this disease was almost always lethal. In the 1960s, the survival rate was less than 10 percent. Now the overall survival rate of the disease is about 90 percent."

Sailor's father, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Aaron Parker, was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, when she became critically ill and was transported via life flight to Dell Children's Hospital in Austin, Texas.

"In less than an hour everything changed," Parker said. "Our entire world changed in so many ways."

Sailor's grandmother, Kim McSparren contacted an old childhood friend, Delores Hagen, who happens to be a critical care nurse in the Pediatric Sedation Unit at BAMC. Coincidentally, Hagen also had leukemia as a child.

"Forty years ago, Sailor's grandmother lived across the street from me. She was my best friend," Hagen said. "She asked me if I would please go talk to Sailor's parents."

After completing a couple months of treatments, Sailor was transferred to BAMC and her dad received a compassionate reassignment to nearby Randolph Air Force. Hagen was there to provide support every step of the way.

"Nurse Delores Hagen has been pretty incredible this entire time helping out above Sailor's treatment consisted of intravenous chemotherapy, oral chemotherapy and intrathecal chemotherapy, injected directly into the spinal fluid through lumbar punctures.

"By the time we received her as a patient, she was overall, doing quite well and was already in remission," Howell said. "The chemotherapy treatment course lasts about two and a half years for girls."

Sailor's parents were overjoyed that their daughter was finished with her treatment.

"There has been a lot of frustrating moments, a lot of painful moments, but now that it's all wrapped up and coming to an end, it's like a pinch yourself moment," Parker said.

COVID-19 made things even more difficult because Sailor's immune system was compromised.

"The COVID slump that everyone has been in; we were one level deeper," Parker said.

"Now we are actually getting to feel what normal COVID life is with everybody else," he laughed. "We don't know what to do because all these doors and possibilities have opened back up."

Megan Parker, Sailor's mother, agrees. "It's been a journey. It's kind of surreal that it's basically come to an end."

Sailor said she is looking forward to being able to go to grandma's house now that her treatment is finished. There may even be a trip to the beach and Jiu-Jitsu classes in her future.

"Sailor has done extremely well with her treatments and we hope that she is cured of her disease, but she will be watched very closely to make sure that there are no signs of the leukemia returning," Howell said.

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