Polk City, Iowa

In May 2017, Harper Stribe came in from playing outside and her parents, Nicole and Nolan, noticed slight swelling in her cheek, thinking it was an allergic reaction or bug bite. The next day, the bump was still there.

Soon after, Harper saw a local pediatrician, who ran tests and referred her to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. The ENT thought she had a viral infection, and the Stribes were told to go home and “wait it out,” but Harper soon began experiencing pain and increased swelling.

“She’d wake up in the middle of the night, thrashing around and saying her cheek hurt,” remembers Nicole. “As a parent, you know something else is going on.” 

Nicole and Nolan brought their daughter back to an ENT and insisted on more testing. Hours after an MRI, the Stribes received a call—the bump was a tumor.

Harper was immediately referred to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Her care team of pediatric otolaryngology and oncology specialists confirmed she had embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancerous tumor that forms in skeletal muscles. In her case, she had a 6-centimeter tumor wrapped around her jawbone and facial nerves.

“They did a very good job preparing us for the worst, but your mind tends to roam to some pretty dark places,” says Nolan. “You know it’s a long haul once you get that diagnosis, but we knew we were at the right place with the right experts.”

“It was kind of an out-of-body experience,” adds Nicole. “A day or two after she was admitted, I excused myself to the restroom and clung to the sink. I just lost it. Reality hit that my baby had cancer and I couldn’t do a thing about it.”

Her team at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital—home to Iowa’s only nationally ranked pediatric cancer program—developed a treatment plan. Fortunately, because Harper’s tumor was so noticeable, it was caught early and the cancer cells had not spread. Due to the location of her tumor, surgery wasn’t an option. Instead, Harper underwent a 45-week protocol of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation, which shrunk her tumor. She completed the treatment in May 2018.

“The tumor will never completely go away, but they did kill off the cancer cells,” says Nicole.

Despite the rigors of her treatment, Harper enjoyed brighter moments, too.

“The entire care team was awesome. The doctors and the nurses play a huge role on a day-to-day basis, but the therapy dogs, child life specialists, University of Iowa Dance Marathon students, even some of the sports teams were nice enough to stop by and visit and lighten her spirit,” explains Nolan. “I consider all of them part of her support network.”

Harper’s older brother, Nile, also receives care at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital for a genetic disorder, Fragile X syndrome, which causes intellectual disability. The Stribes are grateful for the pediatric care team that’s been so significant for their children.

“To have these resources available—world-class experts in their fields—ended up being exactly what we needed at those crucial times,” says Nolan.

“From day one, we felt supported,” adds Nicole. “We were sent here to begin with, but we stayed because we became comfortable with the people who were treating our child. You have to be able to truly trust the people you’re handing your child over to.”

Today, Harper is thriving. She’s back to her sassy, active self, and her loved ones know she has a bright future ahead of her.

“Harper’s been given the chance to do more,” says Nolan. “We're looking forward to just watching her continue to grow.”

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