Young cancer celebrates remission, helps others

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YORKTOWN, Ind. (AP) — Isabella Clevenger's family has some big celebrations coming up in the next few months. Before Isabella — known as Bella — turns 5 in December, she will celebrate hitting the 1-year mark for remission of leukemia.

And before that, she will get to attend (part of) Bella's Ball, a fundraising event in her honor on Nov. 10.

Now in its second year, the event will raise funds to help the Clevenger family with medical expenses. After more than a year of hospital visits, treatment and medical bills, "We've pretty much drained any money we'd saved for her college fund, any savings we had," said Bella's mother, Kady Clevenger.

Bella was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia the summer of 2011; within about six weeks, friends of the Clevenger family had organized the first Bella's Ball to help them out, The Star Press reported (http://tspne.ws/Su3Co3 ) .

This year's event is even bigger — and is intended to help more than just Bella's family. This year, Kady said, Bella wanted 25 percent of the funds raised to go to Riley Child Life. The program's website notes that it provides children undergoing treatment at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis with toys, activities and support — "to help kids get through the tough stuff," as Kady said.

Bella and her family know from personal experience how valuable the program's services are over the course of treatment at Riley; Kady notes the Child Life specialists are always on hand with an iPad or games, and once searched the entire hospital to find the one Disney Princess Barbie that Bella didn't have yet.

Bella's mother attributes her wish to help other kids who are sick with a growing awareness of exactly what she's been going through for the past year. Just before Halloween, Bella actually used the word "cancer" for the first time to describe what she's had; "Usually it's 'I'm sick,'" Kady said.

"I think she's finally starting to grasp what this is all about," Kady said. "I love it and I hate it at the same time."

Noting that Bella's cancer is now in remission, her mother added, "She doesn't realize that she's better." Bella still gets regular chemotherapy treatments and spinal taps, and will for at least another year; other, related health issues, such as a recent bout of pneumonia, still crop up as well.

Her physical condition is definitely improving, however. At one point down to 22 pounds after her diagnosis in August 2011, Bella's weight is now up to 36, a few pounds over her pre-diagnosis weight. Her fine motor skills are coming back, though Kady notes you can still tell she's not back up to healthy kid levels when running or playing, and her energy level is not always that high.

That doesn't stop Bella, however; she's currently taking tap dance, art, piano and tumbling lessons at Cornerstone Center for the Arts. ("Grandma couldn't say no" when taking Bella to sign up for classes, Kady explained with a laugh.) "She just keeps going and going," Kady added.

And — in a big milestone for Bella — her hair is growing back.

In a Star Press article before the first Bella's Ball last year, Kady talked about having explained to Bella before treatments began that she would have to lose her baby hair before her big-people hair would grow in. That prompted Bella to ask whether the "hair fairy" would leave money under her pillow.

After that article appeared, Kady said recently, the family received donations totaling about $1,000 from a variety of anonymous folks listing the gifts as being "To Bella, from the hair fairy."

Faced with ongoing medical expenses, the Clevenger family is hoping for more such generous support from this year's Bella's Ball, which will offer even more musical acts — bands, DJs and solo artists — in a new venue.

So that Bella can attend her own event, organizers will section off a VIB (Very Important Bella) area for her at the ball, which is a 21-and-older event otherwise, Kady said.

People who meet Bella can't help but feel for the young cancer survivor, Kady said, crediting that response in part to just the automatic reaction to hearing of an innocent child fighting cancer.

But Bella herself, described by her mom as witty and remarkably aware for age, prompts love from everyone who meets her, Kady added. "She's just an awesome spirit."

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Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com

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