KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — April Frazier's third-grade class at Taylor Primary School drags Alana's monkey everywhere — to the lunch room to eat, to the classroom to read and to the playground to romp around.
Everywhere they go, they snap pictures of the monkey. Lots of pictures.
And at the end of every week, those photos along with journal entries chronicling the monkey's antics are sent home to Alana Johnson.
Alana was supposed to be in Frazier's class this year. Instead, she is at home fighting a rare form of cancer.
Terry Johnson thought her daughter twisted her knee playing softball this summer. Alana had been selected to play on an all-star team and was pretty active.
Every once in a while, though, she would come home limping. Her left knee hurt, her mom said.
So they'd give the little girl aspirin and ice the leg or put a heating pad on it. For a while, that took care of the problem.
Then it started happening more often.
"It got to where she was hopping around on one leg and waking us up in the night," Johnson told the Kokomo Tribune (http://bit.ly/QSTb0x ).
When Alana's doctor couldn't figure out what was happening, he sent her to a specialist. She eventually ended up at Riley Hospital for Children in July for a day of testing.
Her mom was still thinking it was a sports injury.
"I wasn't thinking cancer at all," she said.
But before she even made it home from her visit to Riley, Johnson got a call from the doctor. She was instructed to return to Indianapolis immediately because her daughter had leukemia.
And it wasn't just any type of leukemia. The cancer contains the rare Philadelphia chromosome, Johnson said. It's seen sometimes in adults who have leukemia but rarely in children, she said.
The rare chromosome makes it trickier to treat. Alana goes to Indianapolis once a week for chemotherapy treatments and takes chemotherapy pills at home every day.
With this rare chromosome, though, Alana could relapse before she even finishes treatment, her mom said.
"You have to take it one day at time," she said.
But Alana is doing amazingly well for a 9-year-old "little girl" who was just diagnosed with cancer, her mom said.
"She's always smiling," Johnson said.
The first day of school was a different story, though. Alana broke down in tears when she couldn't get on the bus and head to class with her friends.
"Alana's a straight-A student," Johnson said. "She's a social butterfly. She's not one to lay around and do nothing."
But because the chemotherapy compromises Alana's immune system and makes her weak and tired, she will be forced to stay away from school until at least January. Johnson said it could be much longer.
Alana's class wants her to know that they're always thinking of her, though, Frazier said. So they adopted a program through Riley Hospital called "Monkey in My Chair."
Alana was given a stuffed monkey that sits at her desk every day in school. It goes everywhere her class goes.
It's a way for Alana to stay connected, Frazier said.
"Alana's one of those girls who just loves school," the teacher said. "She's really worried she's missing stuff. Hopefully this comforts her."
She said Alana's classmates are really getting into it. They love taking photos to send to Alana.
They took a class photo with the monkey and gave it to Alana. Johnson said it's framed and sitting on the kitchen table, so the little girl can see it every day.
Soon they will be able to send her regular email messages, too.
"That will be really fun for her," Johnson said.
It's also an opportunity for the students to learn a little more about cancer. The stuffed toy came with a story about what Alana is going through.
Frazier said it told students that Alana is sick and may not always feel well enough to talk to them, but she likes knowing that people are still thinking of her.
And Johnson visited the class recently to give the kids an update on her daughter.
"They related well to it," Johnson said. "They were telling me stories about people they knew who had cancer."
Johnson laughed and said she couldn't help but give the class a lesson on good behavior while she was there. She heard the class was getting in trouble because they talk too much.
"I told them Alana found out and she's not happy," Johnson said. "I said, 'Alana doesn't like getting in trouble. Zip your lips and turn up your ears so you can make her proud.'"
Her daughter likes being a part of the class even when she's away, Johnson said. And the Monkey in My Chair Program has helped with that.
"She thinks it's cool," Johnson said. "She gives it two thumbs up."
Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com