December 19, 2018 | by Zen Vuong
Seven City of Hope patients will welcome the New Year atop City of Hope’s 47th Rose Parade float, “Harmony of Hope.” Meet teenage float rider Caitlin Herron, who has courageously battled cancer and said that despite all the negatives, cancer has changed her perspective on life, forced her to overcome fears and enabled her to reach her full potential.
Two years ago, as a 12-year-old, Caitlin Herron initially didn’t fully “get it” when a City of Hope doctor diagnosed her with a rare form of acute myeloid leukemia.
“At first, the severity of the disease didn’t hit me,” said Caitlin, a resident of Stevenson Ranch, California. “I didn’t have family members with cancer. It wasn’t until I was at the hospital and saw other kids being treated that I understood how bad it would get for me.”
Caitlin was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm, which was once called “natural killer” because of its aggressive nature, in June 2016. Not much data is available about the disease, which usually is diagnosed in 60- to 70-year-olds. The disease is so rare in children that it took about six months and multiple doctors’ visits with specialists at different medical practices for the Herrons to finally pinpoint what was causing Caitlin’s ankle to be inflamed to the size of a golf ball.
Music helped Caitlin cope with the reality of her condition. Despite her beautiful and unique voice, Caitlin loved singing only in private settings. Whenever she was in a bad mood, she’d put on her Spotify playlist. She often sang “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton because it reminded her to stay strong for the pediatric patients who had passed away while battling cancer.
To rally herself before her cancer treatment, Caitlin performed publicly for the first time. She wanted to prove that she could face a long-held fear head on — an analogy for the anxiety she felt over her first round of chemotherapy.
She had a lot of time to think and compose songs. Caitlin used music to calm herself; it was a form of escape. One of the songs she wrote starts with “I’m laying here in bed/Thoughts running through my head/Like will I make it out alive/Poisons running through me.”
Caitlin went through a chemotherapy regimen that the attending nurses called the “shake and bake” because patients would shake uncontrollably, as if suffering from a seizure. Then they would come down with high fevers as their immune system fought off cancer cells. In spite of these ordeals, Caitlin feels enormously positive vibes toward City of Hope.
“City of Hope was my second home,” said Caitlin, now 14. “One day, as my mom was driving me to City of Hope, I told her that if I had the choice not to have cancer, I wouldn’t take it. Cancer affected my life in so many ways and changed how I saw life. It made me want to do all I can to give back. I just really want to be an advocate for anyone going through cancer because it was such a difficult process.”
Her positivity shines through despite the fact that chemotherapy and full-body radiation potentially stunted her growth, sidetracked her puberty and took away her ability to give birth to children in the future.
Since her stem-cell transplant nearly two years ago, Caitlin has been in remission. She’s a freshman in high school and loves all of the trials and tribulations that come with being a teenager. She takes advanced courses, is involved in gymnastics and actively participates in many school activities. She hopes to learn how to play the guitar and perhaps one day create melodies for the songs she composed while in treatment at City of Hope.
Most important, she hopes to inspire other cancer patients to continue to pursue their dreams despite all of the hurdles and battles they may encounter.