10-year-old Virginia Beach girl beats the odds, becomes ambassador for childhood cancer

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Abby Furco, 10, enjoys a Norfolk Admirals Hockey game. Abby was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 4 years old. She survived, and will spend 2017 as an ambassador for the St. Baldrick's Foundation. (Courtesy of Patty Furco)
Abby Furco, 10, enjoys a Norfolk Admirals Hockey game. Abby was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 4 years old. She survived, and will spend 2017 as an ambassador for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. (Courtesy of Patty Furco)

Ten-year-old Abby Furco loves Harry Potter. She’s read all seven books, as well as the prequel and the sequel.

Abby’s often wondered what schoolhouse she’d be sorted into if she were a student at Hogwarts.

Maybe she’d be placed into Ravenclaw for her smarts, or Hufflepuff because she’s a hard worker. Perhaps she’d find her home in Gryffindor because of her courage.

Abby has had to be brave for as long as she can remember. Diagnosed at 4 years old with Philadelphia-chromosome-positive leukemia, her parents were told she had a 20 percent chance of survival.

With the help of several doctors, family members, friends and the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Abby beat the odds and today she is cancer-free.

This year she will begin a new journey as a St. Baldrick’s Foundation ambassador — a group of five survivors who share their stories publicly to raise awareness for childhood cancer and funds for research.

St. Baldrick’s is a national nonprofit organization that has funded more than $200 million for childhood cancer research grants since 2005, said foundation Director of Family Relations Jane Hoppen.

“(People say) ‘You’re a miracle,'” Abby said. “I feel great sharing my story with people.”

Overcoming an abnormal cancer

Abby’s life hasn’t been easy.

She was first diagnosed with cancer in February 2011. Over the last six years she’s gone in and out of remission, had a bone marrow transplant and developed graft-versus-host disease, a sickness that almost killed her last summer.

Abby’s leukemia isn’t average. She is positive for the Philadelphia chromosome, an abnormality that made it much harder for her body to respond to traditional chemotherapy, said her mother, Patty Furco.

“It was horrible,” her mother said.

In the beginning of her treatment Abby’s body wasn’t responding as well as doctors hoped, and they believed she needed a bone marrow transplant.IMG_1488

As her mother was reaching out to hospitals that could help with the transplant, she learned about a trial drug for people who were Philadelphia chromosome positive. The drug was created through research funded by the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, although Patty Furco didn’t know that at the time.

Abby started the trial drug that day, and it worked. She went into remission five months into treatment.

“We came back home, continued with the trial drug and the high dose chemotherapy paired together, and we stayed on that path. That was three years total,” Patty Furco said.

The Furcos spent one blissful year without constant trips to the hospital. Abby was healthy, and she went back to school, started playing soccer, joined the swim team and hung out with friends.

“We just lived,” Patty Furco said. “She was all on a full kid.”

But in 2014, Abby developed severe leg pains that brought her back to the hospital. Doctors delivered the heartbreaking news: Abby had cancer again.

There were no more options. Abby had to have a bone marrow transplant.

Although effective in destroying the cancer, the aftermath of the transplant paired with years of chemotherapy was hard on Abby’s body. She developed graft-versus host disease, which eventually lead to her kidneys failing.

48 hours to live

In July 2016, the Furcos enjoyed what they believed would be one last family trip to Sandbridge Beach when doctors told them Abby had 48 hours to live. (Courtesy of Patty Furco)
In July 2016, the Furcos enjoyed what they believed would be one last family trip to Sandbridge Beach when doctors told them Abby had 48 hours to live. (Courtesy of Patty Furco)

Patty Furco can talk about her daughter’s cancer with the relative calmness of any parent who has watched their child fight for their life for six years. But when she gets to this part of Abby’s story, she cries.

In July of 2016 Abby was sicker than she’d ever been. She spent five weeks on continuous dialysis at Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center in Durham, N.C., but multiple systems in her body were failing.

One day Abby coded. She needed injections to bring her back to life. Doctors told her parents she likely didn’t have more than 48 hours to live.

Abby and her parents talked it over. They signed a “do not resuscitate” form and made the difficult decision to take her off of her dialysis and her medications and bring her home to die comfortably.

“She wanted to come home,” Patty Furco said. “I had to pick out a funeral home. We had oxygen machines, all just in case for end of life. We almost sat vigil.”

In the days that followed, Abby’s family did everything they could to make sure she was happy.

Abby wanted to smell carrot cake one last time, so her mother baked her one. She wanted to visit the beach and see the moon again, so the family put her in a wheel chair and a group kept the Sandbridge Beach open for her one night. Abby wanted to watch “Finding Dory,” so her family bought out the entire Regal Strawbridge Marketplace Stadium 12 for her and her friends.

Abby’s family slept on blow up mattresses in the living room while she slept on the couch. Her older sister, Maggie, held her hand at night.

Every time Abby fell asleep her mother didn’t expect her to wake up. But she did.

An ambassador to healing

Weeks passed and Abby actually started to improve.

Six months later, Abby still suffers from chronic graft-versus host disease and is on a high dose of pain killers, but she can walk again. Some days she feels terrible pain. She spends these days in bed or on the couch — playfully dubbed “Abby’s office” by the family.

Other days Abby is a lot like any other ten year old. She studies subjects like the Revolutionary War with an in-home tutor, runs errands with her mom, eats good meals and plays online Minecraft with her friend Allie.

Although Abby is sometimes tired of talking about her cancer, she said she knows it’s important to share her story and raise awareness for childhood cancer as an ambassador for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation — an organization that funded research that saved her life.

Her family will be part of the ambassador program as well, supporting her like they always have.

Over the years, "Team Abby" has raised about $100,000 to fund cancer research through the St. Baldrick's Foundation. (Courtesy of Patty Furco)
Over the years, “Team Abby” has raised about $100,000 to fund cancer research through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. (Courtesy of Patty Furco)

Over the years, Abby and her family have raised more than $100,000 for “Team Abby” to fund cancer research through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. Her father, Joseph, has also participated in the foundation’s head shaving events, even shaving off his eyebrows for donations.

“We have treatments that help people — we just need to make them better. We need to work on the less toxic treatments,” Patty Furco said, adding that that’s is the goal of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

Abby has many goals that look past her health issues and toward being a normal kid. She wants to play soccer again, return to public school and hang out with her friends. Some day she wants to become a chef.

But for now, she’s taking it one day at a time.

To learn more about the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, visit stbaldricks.org.

Mayfield can be reached at adrienne.m@southsidedaily.com.

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Adrienne Mayfield is an award-winning, multi-media journalist hailing from Clermont, Fla. She moved to Lynchburg, Va. on a whim when she was 19, and worked her way to Hampton Roads in 2013. Adrienne is passionate about telling people stories via covering public safety and the judicial system. She isn’t afraid to take a heads-on approach to covering crime, including knocking on doors to get the details police aren’t sharing. Adrienne is a 2014 Old Dominion University graduate who still lives within walking distance of the college. You may see her cruising around Downtown Norfolk on her bike, enjoying a sandwich from Grilled Cheese Bistro or playing fetch with her dog, Greta, at the Colonial Place dog park.