With a Positive Outlook, Keren Tackles a Rare Cancer Called Rhabdomyosarcoma

In spite of a challenging treatment regimen and the amputation of her leg, Keren continues to find joy through music and art with support from her family and care team at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Keren Clay smiling in hospital with oncologist

When Keren was diagnosed with Stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer in the form of a solid tumor, her family made it their mission to make each day the best possible, despite the tough road Keren had ahead of her.

“Our approach was not just to make sure Keren was happy, but optimistic. Because research shows that having a positive attitude is one of the most important things you can do for healing,” says Kelly Clay, Keren’s mother.

Keren’s cancer journey began in the fall of 2017, when she began complaining of foot pain and a lump on the bottom of her foot. Her parents, Kelly and Jonathan, thought it may just be a soccer injury, so they took her to a sports medicine primary care physician.

“He had no idea what it was after seeing the X-ray, so they sent us to an orthopedist, who then connected us to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta,” says Kelly.

Initially, they diagnosed Keren with having a vascular anomaly, but after treatment didn’t seem to be working, they ordered an MRI and biopsy. Doctors confirmed it was a cancerous tumor on Feb. 6, 2018.

Putting fun and family first

Rather than begin treatment immediately, the Clay family packed their bags for a last-minute trip to Orlando, Fla. “It was a way for us to have some control over an uncontrollable situation and it set a tone for how we wanted to approach Keren’s cancer,” says Kelly. “We wanted to make each day with her the best we could. That trip was the beginning of a philosophy and approach to always put our family first.”

The day after returning from their trip, Keren was admitted to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s, and immediately began treatment. Because her tumor was wrapped within the muscle and bone of her foot, doctors recommended an amputation below the knee.

“It was very difficult, but Keren did a great job adjusting,” Kelly says. “She’s always been a very positive, happy child.”

Adapting to amputation

This, however, was a challenge. Eleven-year-old Keren was a former soccer player; she loved to swim and play outside, so having limited mobility was life-changing for her. Unfortunately, complications delayed her treatment and her prosthetic.

After celebrating the end of her first round of chemotherapy, she started a second regimen that included another 20 radiation treatments. In a year-and-a-half, Keren grew 2 inches in height, but she lost her hair twice as a result of her treatments.

To get through the hard days, Keren turned to the Music and Art Therapy programs, as well as snuggles with our facility dogs. Kelly says they are especially thankful for these activities that brought Keren a bit of joy and for the care team and friends that supported her throughout her treatment.

“It was such a relief to have them there,” Kelly adds. “It’s hard to make each day good for your child when they’re cooped up in a hospital, but the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center team helped take a lot of pressure off me. We felt safe when we were there, and we felt the support, love and comfort.”

Kelly encourages others to give to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center so that they can continue to offer such programming for kids going through the same struggles Keren has. “What the hospital does to make the children feel more comfortable just by providing these additional services is so special. Those are the things that help kids pass the day and what they look forward to each day.”

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