LITTLE MISS AWESOME
By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s a lot for one little girl to understand.
Avril Shahan just knows she sometimes feels yucky.
But then her hair started falling out and her identical twin sister’s didn’t — a perplexing turn of events when you’re 3 and the reigning champion of the Iowa State Fair’s Twins, Triplets and More contest in the “most alike” division.
“It was hard for her to not look exactly like Becca,” mom Tabatha Shahan explained.
If any good has come from Avril’s yearlong fight with leukemia, it’s that she already knows what she wants to be when she grows up.
“Little Miss Avril wants to be a nurse now because of it,” Tabatha said.
Now 4, Avril is already well on her way.
The stethoscope around her neck was a recent gift from the Easter Bunny.
But more than just looking the part, she’s acting it, seeking to make cancer treatment a little less aggravating for other kids.
Inspired by a comment Avril made during chemotherapy at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, Tabatha and husband Will are organizing a charity sheep and goat show June 16 at the Greene County Fairgrounds with a goal of raising $12,000 — money with which they’ll buy 600 “chemo shirts” to donate to Blank for children undergoing cancer treatment.
Ask Avril herself what the worst part of receiving chemo has been and she doesn’t hesitate.
“Taking my shirt off,” she says.
Enter the chemo shirt — a top with zippers at the collar to allow for easy access to a chemo port.
“We watch kids cry all the time,” said Tabatha, 32, a resident of rural Jefferson.
Before Tabatha’s sister found a chemo shirt for Avril to wear, they were right there with them.
With so many tears being shed, Tabatha wasn’t sure she could endure two whole years of treatment.
“She has no control over anything,” Tabatha said of her daughter. “She wants to be able to control one thing.”
That one thing — a special shirt — was just what the doctor ordered.
“One day,” Tabatha recalled, “she said, ‘All the kids need one of these.’ ”
The idea stuck.
Less than a year into their own battle with leukemia, the local family is thinking of others.
“I had somebody ask, ‘How do you deal with stress?’ I obviously take on more,” Tabatha joked.
“It’s the least we could do,” she added.
The event — Show for the Gold, in commemoration of the color for childhood cancer — promises to feature some of the finest sheep in the Midwest, with prizes of $1,000 for the grand champion market lamb and $500 for the grand champion goat.
The fundraiser is already rapidly exceeding expectations.
A silent auction from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. will feature everything from a picture autographed by the Cubs’ All-Star first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, a cancer survivor himself, to an Australian Shepherd puppy and a show pig, with fire pits, livestock feed and more in between.
Fudge’s Flowers donated a dozen roses.
“One person,” Tabatha said, “is working on a truckload of gravel.”
A barbecue from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. will be supported by Hy-Vee, which is donating buns, and Fareway, which is donating water.
“We have a wonderful community,” Tabatha said. “We have a giving community.”
Just a year ago, the Shahans could hardly yet imagine what they were about to undergo.
Everything changed Aug. 28, when the family’s pediatrician in Guthrie Center called and told Tabatha to get Avril to Blank.
Within 45 minutes of their arrival, Avril was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), an aggressive leukemia, and given emergency blood and platelet transfusions.
If not treated, ALL would be fatal within just a few months.
Avril so far has endured six blood transfusions, including one just last week.
It all started, ironically, the day the girls once again won the twin contest at the state fair.
“She just started looking a little pale,” said Tabatha, chalking it up to the August heat.
Soon came a low-grade fever.
A trip to the Greene County Medical Center confirmed what they suspected — that Avril had picked up a little virus.
“He said give it 10 days,” Tabatha said.
After 14, the girls’ pediatrician in Guthrie Center drew some blood, setting in motion the call that would upend their lives.
Even before they reached home, Tabatha had a message: “Tabatha, this is not looking good. It’s kind of looking like leukemia.”
“Of course,” Tabatha said, “I go into panic, scramble mode.”
Less than an hour after scurrying through the door at Blank, Avril was a cancer patient.
“I bawled,” Tabatha said. “And I bawled. And I bawled.”
She then thought of Becca, Avril’s identical twin sister.
“What about Becca?” she remembers asking the doctor at Blank.
Had the girls still been babies, there would have been no doubt: Becca, too, would have leukemia, Tabatha explained, because they shared a placenta.
“I’ve learned more about cancer than I ever thought I would,” Tabatha said.
Leukemia is a blood cancer and, while still a rare disease overall, the most common type of cancer in children and teens.
“You really don’t know what to think,” Will Shahan confessed. “You automatically think the worst.”
There was so much information coming at them from the pediatric oncologists that it began to get garbled.
“I felt lost,” Tabatha said.
If nothing else, the Shahans — who’ve been married since 2011 and have a third daughter, 2-year-old Cadance — have faithfully adhered to the doctor’s first word of advice: to not seek out information on the internet.
Even without Google, they’ve learned that, every two minutes, a child in the world is diagnosed with cancer. They’ve learned that childhood cancer is the least-funded cancer research.
But they also have learned that one in four kids loses their battle with cancer.
This first year alone, Avril has lost three cancer buddies at Blank.
“A lot of parents talk about being angry,” Tabatha said. “We were never angry, just heartbroken she has to go through this.”
Avril will undergo two years of treatment.
“There’s the good path, which Avril is on, and the bad path,” Tabatha said.
While she’s been in remission since Day 30, it’s still too early for her parents to breathe easy.
“I’m still on edge,” Will said.
Avril’s hair has started to grow back as well, slowly restoring her appearance as Becca’s mirror image.
But as it turned out, looking different wasn’t too bad after all, according to Tabatha.
“She says bald is beautiful.”
How to go
What: Show for the Gold, a charity sheep and goat show in honor of Avril Shahan, with a silent auction and barbecue lunch
When: 10 a.m. June 16
Where: Greene County Fairgrounds
Cost for meal: Free will donation