HOUMA, La. — Whether you know her as Annabelle Thomas or Anna Banana Awesome Sauce, the 6-year-old has been kicking cancer’s butt since her diagnosis in 2015.
The Houma native was diagnosed with high-risk B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia just after her fourth birthday in November 2015.
For the past two years, Annabelle has been undergoing chemotherapy, steroid and other treatments at Ochsner’s oncology unit in New Orleans.
In March, the Thomas family will begin to put cancer in the past as Annabelle moves on to the next step of remission.
Annabelle’s diagnosis was quick. After a visit to her regular pediatrician on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, they were sent to the hematology and oncology unit at Ochsner.
The visit was prompted by what Annabelle called “polka dots” that appeared on her arms.
After rounds of blood tests, the doctors sat the family down, and 15 minutes later, they had a diagnosis.
“Our life was changing very quickly,” Annabelle’s mother, Victoria Thomas, said.
Annabelle was admitted and began chemotherapy on the following Monday.
“There was no reason to wait,” Thomas said.
Because Annabelle was designated at high risk, meaning she had a higher chance of suffering a relapse, the first 11 days of treatment were intense, Thomas said.
For about a month, the steroids Annabell was taking to fight the Leukemia were making her irritable.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Thomas said. “She always had this amazing spring/ She was this really happy, free-spirited, awesome little girl, and we were nervous this would be her through the treatment.”
But two weeks after the first round of treatment, Annabelle started coming back to herself.
For the next eight months, the chemo became more intense. Some weeks the family would travel back and forth to the clinic every day, other times, Annabelle was an inpatient for as many as six days at a time.
“There was never a week off,” Thomas said.
Luckily, Annabelle didn’t have many side effects, except the hair loss and neuropathy.
The then-4-year-old lost her big red curls for a while.
“That was a big deal for her,” her mother said.
Annabelle’s hair has since grown back, but she’s still working through the neuropathy, which makes her hands and legs weak and affect her motor skills.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Thomas said.
They expected vomiting and nausea. Instead, they got a child running around the hospital’s halls with her parents chasing after her to make sure she didn’t pull out her IV.
“It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “Children fight back so easily.”
Because the treatments were so intense, and Annabelle’s immune system was so degraded, she often couldn’t go out in public or be around anyone outside of her immediate family.
“Going to hospital almost became fun. She could play and be with other kids,” Thomas said.
Annabelle was preparing for another day of treatment when her mother saw her stuffing toys into a bag.
“She said she was going to bring toys to Ochsner’s to give to the other kids,” Thomas said.
At the clinic that day, the family talked to the staff and worked out a list of items that could be donated.
“In November, we started an event page on Facebook and people really listened and came through,” Thomas said. “I never expected the support and the giving of the community of what they gave.”
In just a few months, the family collected thousands of toys and clothes, over $2,000 in gift cards and over $1,500 in monetary donations to purchase more gifts.
When Annabelle arrived for her treatment just before Christmas, she took a truck full of toys with her.
“She was very excited to be able to do it,” Thomas said.
Without hesitation, Annabelle passed out the toys and gifts to the children at the hospital.
“I was so happy to bring the children who are sick so many toys for Christmas and I can’t wait to do it again next year,” Annabelle said.
Although Annabelle was considered in remission after 29 days of treatment, leukemia has such a high risk of relapse that treatments often last up to five years.
Through March, Annabelle will take oral chemo daily and travel to the hospital for a monthly treatment through the port in her chest. She also has to undergo a spinal tap every few months to replace spinal fluid with steroids.
The spinal taps have been one of the biggest stressors, Thomas said. Each time, Annabelle is put under anesthesia as her family waits in the lobby for her to wake up.
Thankfully, her last one will be in January, Thomas said.
After these rounds are complete in March, Annabelle will continue with monthly IV chemo and daily oral chemo for another year and a half.
“It’s a long road. Even though in March it may be over, it’s never really over,” Thomas said.
She’ll also get her port removed this summer, freeing her up to rejoin soccer and dance classes without worry.
“I am looking forward to playing soccer again and not having to get poked with a needle in my port again because that hurts and I don’t like having to do that,” Annabelle said.
Annabelle went back to school last year and stayed home when her counts were low.
“She was always big fan of school and dancing. Pulling her out was hard,” Thomas said.
As for the name, Anna Banana Awesome Sauce, Annabelle came up with it on her own just before her diagnosis.
“It’s her superhero name,” Thomas said.
On the first day of Annabelle’s treatment, the nurse heard the name, stuck it on the board, and it never went away.