Sahara's fight

Sunday, September 3, 2006
Shannon Aldridge, left, of Cape Girardeau, chatted with his daughter, Sahara, 12, center, Friday as mom Amy looked on at a Houston, Texas, hospital. Sahara is being treated for cancerous tumor on her brain stem that was diagnosed in July. She is expected to remain in the hospital until October. (Heath Hamilton)

HOUSTON, Texas -- Not long ago Sahara Aldridge's life was much simpler -- talking to friends, playing basketball and making the transition from middle school to junior high.

Then everything changed.

A little more than a month ago, Sahara and her family found out the good health most people take for granted is no guarantee. Sahara had cancer on her brain stem.

And it was growing, quickly.

"I thought cancer was cancer, but it's not," said Shannon, Sahara's father. "This is the worst it probably could have been -- right in the middle of the brain stem."

Now the life of the blogging, basketball-loving Sahara has changed into one of hospital rooms, needles, monitors, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Multiple treatments a day often make her physically sick, while distance makes her homesick.

Sahara hasn't seen her home in more than a month, and another will pass before that happens.

Hundreds of miles from home, Sahara is battling for her life at the Children's Hospital at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The fight is one against her own body, against a tumor called a neuroblastoma -- a cancer that forms out of a nerve cell.

Its position on her brain stem makes an operation impossible, so Sahara has to undergo a clinical trial treatment that includes chemo and radiation.

For Sahara, it's an experience unlike any she's ever known. She says the treatments make her feel "tired and yucky. Then you get used to it, and then you feel better."

The hardest part for Sahara, other than missing friends and school, has been missing out on valuable basketball practice.

"It's been really hard, because I can't dribble or do anything basketball related," she said.

Through it all, Sahara has been the strong one of the family, her parents said.

"She'll be throwing up one minute, then after it's over she's smiling again," said her mother, Amy. "She's the one who's led us through this thing, saying 'That's OK, stop crying.'"

Like her parents, Sahara's religious faith has helped her keep a bright outlook.

"I just know that God has a plan for everybody, and everything will work out for the best," she said.

But the transition is extreme for a girl whose friends and family call her "Hoops," for her love and skill at basketball.

"We've worked on basketball since she was 3 years old, and she just turned 12," said Shannon Aldridge. "She's a really great point guard."

The Southeast Missouri State University women's basketball team considers Sahara a part of the team. Since she was probably 5 years old Sahara has been around the Redhawks in one way or another, serving as the team's ball girl for the past few seasons.

"Most of my girls don't know her by any other name than 'Hoops,'" said assistant coach Lisa Pace. "She's an extension of us."

Every summer Hoops is a regular at the Redhawks basketball camps. Even after Sahara found out about her cancer, she spent her last few days in Cape Girardeau at camp, even though she couldn't play. Pace made her assistant coach for the day.

"She's the most optimistic 12-year-old I've ever been around," Pace said. "She's stronger than most adults. ... You can't even tell when she's in pain. Most of the time she's the one telling the adults that things will be OK."

Without Sahara's love of basketball, things could have turned out worse.

In July Sahara's parents noticed their right-handed daughter had started dribbling and shooting basketballs with her left hand. It was an unnerving sight for them, and they knew something must be wrong.

Shannon said Sahara was in the middle of a growth spurt and would experience some awkwardness, but this was something more. But the Aldridges had no idea what their daughter's affliction could be.

"Because basketball was such a big part of her life, it was weird," Amy said of the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the tumor. "The last thing on your mind was brain cancer, though."

The next few days were a whirlwind of doctor visits. A Cape Girardeau neurologist ordered an MRI and found a mass on Sahara's brain stem. The family then sought the help of St. Louis Children's Hospital, where they found out the mass was a cancerous tumor.

But the treatment at St. Louis wasn't what the family needed, Shannon and Amy said. The doctors seemed to have little hope for Sahara's recovery, and hope was what the Aldridges needed.

When they returned home, the family prayed, and the next day they called M.D. Anderson.

The Houston hospital is devoted solely to treating cancer in children and uses current research to fight cancers like Sahara's. Amy said the doctors don't impose a time frame on Sahara's treatment. Sahara's case is looked at in terms of each day, instead of months down the road. And each small victory boosts the family's hopes for recovery.

Two Fridays ago, an MRI showed that Sahara's tumor hadn't grown since the treatment began. It hasn't shrunk, either, but for a rapidly growing tumor like Sahara's, no growth equals big progress.

"We were just over the moon," Amy said. "Any kind of little positive news that you can get just means everything. They're small victories, and we thrive on those."

Small victories give the Aldridges comfort, and so does all the support they're getting from people not only back home in Cape Girardeau, but around the world.

They'll need it. Shannon thinks when everything is done, Sahara's medical bills could reach about $250,000.

Amy had to temporarily leave her job at Southeast Missouri State University so she can stay with Sahara at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston.

Meanwhile Shannon maintains his job at Beaver Janitor Supply in Cape Girardeau, going to Houston on weekends and whenever else he can.

Most of the time he drives 12 hours each way. Thanks to donations of airline miles from friends, he's been able to fly lately.

Over the past week he's been in Houston with his family.

Both Amy and Shannon said their bosses and co-workers supported them without question -- allowing them time off, sending gifts and messages and keeping the family in their prayers.

The family's church, Lynwood Baptist, has rallied around the Aldridges' cause. So has Cape Girardeau Central Junior High, where Sahara would be a student this year.

And local businesses have also done their part.

P-Mac Music is taking donations and raffling off a guitar signed by the members of the rock group Disturbed to help pay for Shannon's travel expenses.

Owner Paul MacDougall said he met the family through a P-Mac employee -- and Shannon's regular purchases at the store -- and fell in love with Sahara.

"She's a doll," MacDougall said. "Even if you don't like kids, you'll like this kid. They're just such wonderful people. It's obviously a catastrophic event, but these are just the type of people that you want to do something for them."

Sahara's support goes well beyond Southeast Missouri. Celebrity musician Rick Springfield has made Sahara's cause his own, as well. He's using his Web site, www.rickspringfield.com, to encourage his fans to pray for Sahara's healing and send donations, cards and gifts to the family.

Springfield has known the family for years after meeting them at a concert when Sahara was 5 years old. He calls Sahara the daughter he never had.

Their long relationship makes Springfield's concern for Sahara more than just a publicity ploy.

He said he went into a state of "disbelief" when he heard the news that Sahara had a tumor. "It didn't seem real," he said.

"The world would be much better by having an adult like her, like Sahara, in the world," Springfield said.

Shannon and Amy said they've received support from Springfield fans scattered all over the United States and the world -- complete strangers who want to wish Sahara well.

"You pick up the newspaper and watch the news at night, and you see war, robberies, rapes. Then something happens and you see the good in people, and you never knew it was there," Shannon said.

One of the hardest aspects of the treatment for Sahara has been missing out on the beginning of her first year of junior high, she said. But she's not totally isolated from her friends. They contact Sahara regularly through instant messaging and speak to her through Sahara's blog site, saharaaldridge.blogspot.com.

And Sahara's classmates at the junior high have worked on cards, gifts and other surprises they'll be sending to her in Houston soon.

Principal Roy Merideth said when Sahara returns, they'll want her to feel as much like a normal student as possible.

That will be hard for Sahara. With so many people wishing for her speedy recovery, she's become a celebrity in her own right.

But many things won't change. She'll still love basketball and friends, and she looks forward to watching the Redhawks play this November.

And the Redhawks will be waiting for her when she returns.

"We'll love the day that she's back in the Show Me Center," said Redhawks head coach B.J. Smith.

But catching a game will only be one of many happy moments for Sahara when she returns.

"I can't wait to see my friends and go back to school," she said.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

Donations

Sahara "Hoops" Aldridge

"Slam Dunk Cancer" Fund

325 N. Kingshighway

Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63701

Cards and letters

Sahara Aldridge

Ronald McDonald House Houston

1907 Holcombe Blvd.

Sahara Aldridge -- Room 22

Houston, Texas 77030

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