Little girl, big tumor: Dickinson child returns home after 5-week hospital stay to have pancreatic tumor removed
Abagail O'Brien described her stomach ache as 10 times worse than burning her hand.
"It started when I had constant tummy pains and I couldn't eat very much -- I couldn't eat hardly anything without having tummy pains," she said.
Less than a week after starting the fifth grade at Lincoln Elementary, the 10-year-old Dickinson girl was at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital in Minneapolis.
That was where doctors discovered she had a rare form of pancreatic cancer.
Abagail returned home this week after a five-week hospital stay.
On Aug. 23, after two days of school, Abagail asked to be taken to the doctor because her stomach hurt so bad. Her mom, Jennifer, made an appointment at the clinic for the next day, a Saturday.
After the initial examination, clinic staff sent Abagail to the emergency room because they thought she had appendicitis.
The staff at St. Joseph's Hospital in Dickinson ran blood tests for appendicitis that came back negative. Doctors then did a CT scan to see what could be causing the pain and saw what they believed to be a cyst on Abagail's pancreas.
"I started doing research the whole weekend about what a cyst was and found out you could live with it," Jennifer said. "It can be bothersome."
The following Monday, Abagail had an MRI, which proved her stomach ache was much more dangerous than a cyst.
An appointment was made for the afternoon of Aug. 27 at Amplatz Children's Hospital. The family left Dickinson at 4 a.m. for the Twin Cities.
Three days later, on the morning of Aug. 30, Abagail went into surgery. She began surgery prep at 7 a.m., went into surgery at 10 a.m. and was admitted into the ICU at midnight.
The doctors removed a solid pseudopapillary tumor from Abagail's pancreas about the size of an average orange. Biopsies determined it was cancerous.
To make sure all of the cancer was removed, doctors took out two-thirds of Abagail's pancreas as well as the very tip of her spleen.
"This type of tumor, there have only been a handful of people that have had it," Jennifer said. "She's the youngest one that has ever had it."
The tumor was completely removed, which is why the doctors took so much tissue. There was no cancer found in the surrounding tissue.
"It's such a rare, rare tumor. They don't have much to go on," Jennifer said. "The people that have had it have never gotten it back again, but usually it doesn't hit kids, either."
Rarer yet was the consistency of the tumor.
"Usually tumors are solid. This was filled with fluid," Jennifer said. "It was weird."
Normalcy with a twist
The O'Briens returned to Dickinson Oct. 5, and will head back for Abagail's first follow-up appointment next week. She will have checkups in the Twin Cities every three months for the next year, and every six months for the two years after that.
Throughout her five-week stay at the hospital, Abagail was never alone.
"Her sisters and I stayed in the hospital the whole five and half weeks we were down there," Jennifer said. "We stayed in the room."
Abagail has three sisters -- 15-year-old Kaylynn Volesky, 5-year-old Stephanie O'Brien and 2-year-old Melodie O'Brien. She also had visits from her dad, Kory O'Brien, and her grandmother.
Abagail's sisters missed school to be by her side.
Since Stephanie is in kindergarten, she could jump right back in. Kaylynn, however, had to make special arrangements with Dickinson High School because of an extended absence.
Abagail was in good spirits Thursday and wasn't shy about discussing her stay in the hospital, and even found enough energy to antagonize her sisters a bit.
While she is doing well, Abagail still gets tired quickly and won't return to school for another week. Even then, she will only go for half a day.
"She's on the road to recovery right now, but there's still lots of appointments for the next three years that we're going to have to continue to do," Jennifer said.
The O'Briens will know more after Abagail's next appointment.
The family said doctors hope she doesn't have to undergo chemotherapy. However, because her form of cancer is rare -- especially in children -- the possibility remains.
Because so much of her pancreas is gone, Abagail is restricted to no more than 30 grams of fat per day, meaning the whole family is eating healthier.
"We're all on low-fat (diets). We all got skim milk," Jennifer said. "They said maybe in the future -- probably a year or so down the road -- she may be able to go back to regular food. It just depends on when we go back on Tuesday. We're going to find out if her pancreas is doing okay."
To pass the time at the hospital, Abagail used her favorite gift -- a sketch pad -- to draw. Much of her artwork was pictures of food she couldn't have, like pizza and ice cream.
"There was a lot of stuff that she drew because she was hungry for it," Jennifer said with a laugh.
Abagail has always had an issue with food, especially dairy -- which Jennifer chalked up to being something minor, like lactose intolerance -- and always made sure Abagail had Tums with her for indigestion. Now she wonders if it could have been the tumor slowly growing for years.
"She says two years ago it really started hurting and never really went away," Jennifer said.
There is a benefit account set up for Abagail at Dakota Community Bank for funds the O'Briens have been using for travel expenses in the Twin Cities.
"I tell people to trust their gut," Jennifer said. "My husband and my sister-in-law, they were all saying, 'Why are you taking her in for a stomach ache?' Because this isn't right. It's been too long and she was in a lot of pain. I just kind of -- I know people were thinking I was silly, but then it turned out to be cancer."