Finley teen's cancer fight continues

By Katie Dorsey, Tri-City HeraldDecember 25, 2012 

It's beginning to feel a little more like Christmas for Abi Hamlin and her family. The Finley teen returned home last week after spending the past 10 months in Seattle undergoing a second round of cancer treatments.

And today marks 141 days since the 18-year-old underwent a double cord blood transplant to attack her acute myelogenous leukemia.

"I know I'm still sick inside, but it's a big relief that I'm not in the hospital, and I can see my family and my dogs," she said.

Abi first went to Seattle Children's Hospital in March 2011 and was released later that summer when doctors believed she was in remission.

But the cancer returned.

And as her classmates graduated from River View High School in June, Abi faced her 18th birthday and a prognosis that she had two months to a year to live -- a common statistic with this aggressive cancer.

"It brought me down," she said. "It was horrible to have someone look you in the eye and tell you they have no hope for you."

But just as her family and doctors did the first time, they kept fighting.

Finley rallies around Abi

When Abi faced the disease the first time, River View High School students and staff wore orange in support of leukemia awareness and participated in fundraisers for her family.

Her softball teammates and coaches called themselves "Team Abi," and in pregame warmups, they wore shirts declaring that "No One Fights Alone." Before each home doubleheader, they ran onto the field with a banner with Abi's number and hung it on a gate in center field.

Abi eventually returned to classes at River View and even played again on the varsity basketball team. She also traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, advocating for better supplies of vital chemotherapy drugs.

In February, however, Abi had to return to Seattle after tests showed her platelet counts dropping. Her cancer cells had re-emerged. Doctors decided to give her tougher rounds of chemotherapy, total body irradiation -- and then the transplant.

Though Abi has shown no evidence of disease since the Aug. 6 transplant, she has endured a series of complications.

She went into respiratory distress two weeks after the procedure, and her kidneys shut down, forcing her into dialysis three times a week.

Though Abi's family hoped to bring her home around Thanksgiving, the doctors weren't ready to let her go.

Abi has been off dialysis for almost a month, but now doctors are concerned about how her liver is functioning.

"If you don't have to go down into the transplant world, you don't want to," said her father, Ty Hamlin.

But 100 percent of the cells that Abi's bone marrow is producing are healthy now, said her mother, Diane Hamlin.

Home for Christmas

Last Christmas, Abi and her family spent the holiday in Hawaii thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This year's celebration will be low-key: hanging out at home with her parents; her brothers, Tucker and Conner; both sets of grandparents; and her pets.

She is especially happy to be reunited with her dog Diesel. She adopted him after she got out of the hospital last summer. She even got a Santa outfit for Diesel, though he was embarrassed to wear it at first, she said. But Diesel appears to have forgiven Abi for the humiliation, jumping into her lap for a snuggle on the couch.

It's just like it was right before Abi learned that she would have to return to Seattle Children's Hospital.

After getting back to some semblance of her life before cancer, it was jarring to re-enter the hospital. A lot of the friends she made the first time had left.

"It was weird," Abi said. "It was like, 'Why am I here?' You don't even know anyone. And you're on so many meds, and you're in your room, and you just want to be in a cave."

She didn't text her friends or log onto Facebook as much, especially when it became clear that she would need a transplant.

Abi had thought she would get a bone marrow transplant in May, but doctors postponed the procedure because she was not in remission.

Abi's fight to live

The only people she really wanted to see were her parents, who had returned to the pattern of visits they established the first time -- one week her dad took time off work to stay in Seattle with her; the next, it was her mother's turn. They, too, struggled with being back at the hospital.

"All the people you knew are gone," her mother said. "It took me a while to warm up again to the other families. You don't want to revisit it."

But the Hamlins got to know other families there. This spring, several of the Seattle Children's patients and their families starred in a lip-sync video set to Kelly Clarkson's Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You). The video spread across the internet and has been watched more than 3 million times on YouTube.

Abi and her mom also got to spend time with Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez when he visited the hospital, though Abi can't remember much of the conversation because of her medications.

Back in Pasco, Abi's maternal grandmother, Elaine Akerson, received updates on Abi from her parents. She would pass the news along to fellow members of Desert Springs Covenant Church, including an 11-year-old boy who asked about Abi every Sunday.

"Sometimes I'd say, 'She's good.' Other days, I'd say, 'She needs more of your prayers,' " Akerson recalled. "He said, "I pray every day.' "

The Finley community also has continued to help out wherever it can.

The Golf Fore Abi fundraiser at Canyon Lakes Golf Course helped pay for the Hamlins' three-month outpatient stay at the Pete Gross House in Seattle, which cost "almost as much as our house payment," Diane Hamlin said. The family also received gas cards for their trips across the state.

And they didn't have to worry about scrounging up dinner on days when they would get home from a long week in Seattle.

"Every Sunday, there has been a meal waiting here for us," Diane Hamlin said.

Healing from home

Now that the Hamlins are all home again, Ty and Diane will return to work full time, grateful to have been able to keep their jobs thanks to a litany of generous co-workers who donated paid time off.

While Abi doesn't require 24/7 care, she will have friends and family around if she needs it. Her brother Tucker, 20, will take the winter quarter off from Columbia Basin College to help out around the house, and her grandparents will check in during the day.

There are a lot of rules that Abi must follow to safeguard her health. She can't be in large groups or go outside when it's cold. She also experiences food cravings that fade as fast as they come. Her mother says variety, not quantity, is the key to grocery shopping for Abi.

Finishing the requirements for her high school diploma doesn't seem likely right now. She must visit an oncologist in the Tri-Cities once a week and return to Seattle for a checkup once a month. She also is on a slew of medications.

"I would love to (go back to school), but it's so hard because your brain's not even there yet," said Abi, who completed part of her senior year before returning to Seattle. "I felt like I lost half my brain. I'll be talking, and then I'll be like, 'What did I say?' I feel like a dummy."

Once the spring comes, Abi will be able to venture outside more. She hopes to help River View softball coach Andy Clayton during the upcoming season. Abi had just started her junior season with the Panthers when she was diagnosed.

"I missed half my softball career. That was my favorite," said Abi, who also played volleyball and basketball at River View. "I know the kids are real young, and they need someone to get them excited."

Before Abi got home, her mother realized that February -- the month Abi left again for Seattle -- still was written on the calendar. She erased it and wrote "December."

And they are ready to keep moving forward.

"I was talking to Abi the other day, and I said, 'No Christmas cards this year. We'll do Happy New Year cards,' " her mother said. " 'Let's go into 2013 and have a brand new year.' "

-- Katie Dorsey: 582-1526; kdorsey@tricityherald.com

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