Katie Woods doesn’t remember much about the day she was diagnosed with cancer. Not too many three-year-olds would, but her mother, Keri does. “It’s the worst and scariest feeling in the world when a doctor tells you your child has cancer,” she said. “Suddenly your entire life is turned upside down.”
When Keri noticed her daughter sleeping more and bruising easily, she had a feeling something was terribly wrong. “Deep down I knew it was leukemia,” said Keri. “I told the doctor this and he tested Katie for it and sure enough, that was the diagnosis. The doctor’s appointment was at 4 p.m. and by 6 p.m. we were at Marshfield, getting Katie ready to start her treatments.”
While cancer is never a good thing, Katie was lucky that her type of leukemia was a common one and very treatable. But it would take an aggressive approach with a treatment plan that would span two years. During this journey, Katie would lose her hair and on most days her stamina, and her medications would cause a variety of side effects. “I named her medications so she would have an idea of what she would feel like when she took them,” said Keri. “There was the tummy ache medicine, the crabby medicine and the sleepy medicine.”
But the treatment worked and within two weeks, Katie’s cancer was in remission. The family was on pins and needles every time she had a check-up, though. “That part never leaves you,” said Keri. “All you can do is hope.”
But hope is a powerful factor for cancer survivors and that’s what Katie is. Today she is a lithe 13-year-old with a mane of blond hair and a shy smile. Her dream is to become a veterinarian. And because of her ordeal as a small child, she is bringing a little hope to children today who are fighting cancer. That hope comes in the form of a “treasure chest” that Katie does remember when she had to go for treatments at the Marshfield Clinic Pediatric Oncology Department in Marshfield. “My nurse, Brenda Garrigan, would bring down this bin with all kinds of toys in it and after my treatment, I would get to take one home,” said Katie. “I never have forgotten that. It made it easier for me.”
This treasure chest also played a part in making it easier for Keri, who had to sit by and watch her little daughter go through such a grueling protocol. “I felt better when I saw she was happy,” said Keri. “It was never easy, but it did make me feel good when I saw her smile.”
These smiles were so important for the entire Woods family. They gave Katie’s father, Jeff, encouragement in addition to her sister, Jamie, who was 13, her brother, Ryan, who was 9 and another sister, Meghan, who was eight. On top of that, Keri had just given birth to Katie’s brother, Nicholas. “He was born two months prematurely and a month before Katie was diagnosed,” said Keri. “So I was caring for a newborn and Katie during that time.” Since then, the Woods family has grown even more with the additions of Kamryn, who is two, and little Billy, who just turned one. Also, Katie’s cousin, Hallie, is a frequent overnight guest at the Woods’ house.
The family lives in a remote area of Boulder Junction and it soon became clear to Keri and Jeff that teaching their children at home would be beneficial. All the Woods kids still living at home now attend a virtual school and take most of their classes seated at the kitchen table in front of a computer. Katie and Nicholas also expressed an interest in Tae Kwon Do classes, so Keri enrolled them in the Leadership Academy in Woodruff. This is run by Gary Ingells, who believes that while Tae Kwon Do is a good skill for kids to learn, they should also realize that community service plays a big role in developing empathy and compassion. Every time a student earns a belt, he or she is required to complete a community project. When Katie earned her red belt, she decided that a good cause would be to fill the “treasure chest” in Marshfield Clinic’s pediatric department. “Those toys meant so much to me when I was feeling sick,” she said. “I wanted other kids to be able to have a little joy during the time when they were getting treatments and give them something to look forward to.”
Katie’s parents suggested that she place boxes around town so that people could donate toys for the cause. They did, too. In 2009 Katie and her family delivered a sizable load of toys to Marshfield Clinic. Because this drive was so successful, Katie decided to try it again, only this time she would write letters asking for donations. “I wrote a letter to many of the companies that my dad works with,” she said. “My dad works at Quality Heating and almost everyone I asked donated something.”
In fact, when the group Cruzin’ For a Cause found out about Katie’s project, they jumped on board, too. “They matched any monetary donation up to $500,” Katie said. Katie will be their featured speaker this February and they will be holding a raffle to raise even more money to purchase toys for the treasure chest.
This past summer the Woods family made a visit to a local department store with more than $3,600 in donated contributions to fill the chest. “It was really something to have that kind of money and just buy toys,” laughed Katie. “It took us over three hours.”
And while Katie continues to lead a healthy and active life (she has been cancer-free for five years now) she will never forget all the kindness shown to her during a time when fear and uncertainty were facts of life. “If I can make just one kid’s cancer journey easier, then it’s worth it,” she said. “Someone did that for me and I want to give that back.”