Patient Stories: Kinsley

Kinsley’s Courage: A Remarkable Journey of Faith in the Face of Cancer

Kinsley Calloway is a typical 5-year-old who loves swimming, dancing and making people laugh.

“She has such an outgoing personality,” says her mom, Shameca Calloway. “She’s never met a stranger. Everyone she comes across instantly becomes her best friend.”

Kinsley also possesses a depth of poise and power that far surpasses her years. These traits have always been part of Kinsley’s character, but they became even more evident when she was diagnosed with cancer at 4 years old.

“Not my baby”

On Christmas day in 2022, Shameca and her husband DeAndre noticed a bump on the right side of Kinsley’s neck.

Kinsley has had a history of ear infections, so they thought the swollen lymph node might be a sign that another one was starting. When they took Kinsley to the doctor the next day, her pediatrician said she had a swollen lymph node that was likely related to an ear infection and started Kinsley on antibiotics to treat the infection. But the bump didn’t go away.

Over the next few weeks Kinsley had an MRI, a CT scan, and several blood tests to help determine what was causing the lymph node to swell. None of the tests showed anything abnormal. The bump not only remained, but it was growing, so they kept digging for answers. Kinsley saw an oncologist who performed a biopsy to determine whether the bump was cancerous.

On February 3, 2023, Shameca and DeAndre received a phone call that would shake the Calloway family to their core. The biopsy determined Kinsley had stage 2A Hodgkin lymphoma – a type of cancer that develops in the lymphatic system (part of the body’s immune system).

“After I heard the word ‘cancer,’ I just broke down,” Shameca says. “I couldn’t believe it. I just kept crying and screaming, ‘not my baby!’”

The path to healing

Kinsley was referred to Atrium Health Levine Children’s Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital to begin treatment.

“She began her first round of chemotherapy in March 2023,” Shameca says. “They started with a lesser amount of chemotherapy, but her body didn’t respond. So they had to go with a more aggressive treatment.”

Shameca says Kinsley didn’t experience many side effects from the first two rounds of chemotherapy – she was eating well and had her typical amount of energy. But her body began to wear down by rounds three and four. Kinsley’s care team monitored her when she began to have fever and vomiting, working hard to control her nausea and get her blood cell counts up so she could continue with treatment. In addition to chemotherapy, Kinskey also received proton therapy – a type of radiation therapy that uses high-powered energy to treat cancer.

After completing her proton therapy and her fourth round of chemotherapy, Kinsley had another positron emission tomography (PET) scan to assess how her body was reacting to the treatments.

“I didn’t have a good feeling when we went in for her PET scan,” Shameca says. “But they called that same day and told us she was cancer free. We went crazy! Kinsley ran to me and started yelling ‘I’m cancer free!’ … She didn’t really understand what cancer was. But she was just so excited to see us all so happy.”

On October 25, 2023, two months after her fifth birthday, Kinsley rang the bell at Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital to signify her completion of chemotherapy.

Sympathetic support

Kinsley added to her collection of “best friends” during her time at Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital.

“When she was nervous about needles or uncomfortable from the treatments, Kinsley’s nurses really loved on her and did everything they could to make it easier for her,” Shameca says. “When it was time to access her port [a small implant under the skin that provides a less invasive way to give medications], a child life specialist gave Kinsley a bear so she could give her bear a port, too. They just took such good care of her. Their support cushioned the pain of being in the hospital.”

Shameca says she and DeAndre felt the team’s support, too.

“They were very patient with us – taking the time to answer our questions and put our minds at ease when we were feeling anxious,” Shameca says. “I’m an overthinker and I don’t like change. But they made it easier for me as a mom. I can’t say enough to thank her team for all they did for us.”

A poignant moment

Shameca says that for months she couldn’t say out loud that her daughter had cancer.

“I asked God ‘why my baby?’ God comforted me by saying, He chose someone so small to show the world how big He is.” Shameca says. “We didn’t tell anyone about it at first. We didn’t even say the word ‘cancer.’”

But one pivotal moment in Kinsley’s journey made Shameca realize just how serious her little girl’s sickness was.

“After her first round of chemotherapy, I went to put her shirt on and a plait fell out and then I checked to see where it came from and more came out.” Shameca says. “I started bawling. That’s when it became real to me. That’s when I knew my baby wasn’t just sick.”

In true Kinsley fashion, she took the hair loss in stride. Shameca says they reached out to DeAndre’s barber and he came and finished cutting her hair off.

“When the barber finished, Kinsley ran over to him and said, ‘Thank you so much! I love it!’” Shameca says. “Then her dad, aunt and uncle got their hair cut, too, and she was so excited. She said, ‘Now they look just like me!’”

Strength in action

Kinsley is so deeply grounded in her own inner strength that those around her can’t help but feel the reverberations of her faith. Throughout her diagnosis and treatment, Kinsley was not only strong for herself, she was strong for her family.

In the years leading up to Kinsley’s diagnosis, Shameca says she had asked Kinsley the question, “What are you?” To which Kinsley learned to reply: “I’m smart. I’m beautiful. I’m loved. I’m brave. I am a child of God.” But Shameca never dreamed those words would pour out of Kinsley’s mouth when she was in the throes of cancer.

“I didn’t realize it had stuck with her,” Shameca says. “But whenever she was receiving her treatments, she would look in my face and hold my hand and say, ‘It’s OK, mama. I’m smart. I’m beautiful. I’m loved. I’m brave. I am a child of God.’ The first time she repeated that back to me, I was speechless. To hear her little voice being strong for me … She was the one about to get a needle, yet she was holding my hand and telling me it’s going to be OK.”

“You’ve got this”

Kinsley continues to go to Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital for her follow-up visits and is currently awaiting her next scan to confirm that there is still no indication of cancer. Shameca says that if Kinsley’s next scan comes back clear, she can have her port removed.

Shameca says she and DeAndre’s main hope for their little girl is that the cancer doesn’t return. Besides that, they want the same thing most parents wish for their kids – a full, healthy life and the desire for Kinsley to keep being herself.

“She is always giving people hope,” Shameca says. “She’s stronger than a lot of people – including myself.”

To those who are going through a hard time, Shameca says she reflects on Kinsley’s experience and encourages others to be as strong as you can – even if you have to dig deep for that strength to come.

“In the times when your knees are buckling and you’re about to give up, think of this little girl and remember how strong she has been in the midst of some of the hardest days of her life,” Shameca says. “And as Kinsley says: You’ve got this.”