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Two-year-old Brynlee Morein continues to battle cancer

  • Christine Letendre sits with her daughter Brynlee Morein, 2, at their home in Pembroke on Monday, December 3, 2012. Brynlee has an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, an aggressive cancer that affects young children. She is undergoing another round of chemotherapy. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Christine Letendre sits with her daughter Brynlee Morein, 2, at their home in Pembroke on Monday, December 3, 2012. Brynlee has an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, an aggressive cancer that affects young children. She is undergoing another round of chemotherapy.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Brynlee Morein, 2, messes with a piece of stray medical tape she found while playing in her room with her mother Christine Letendre, left, and her uncle Jake at their home in Pembroke on Monday, December 3, 2012. Brynlee has an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, an aggressive cancer that affects young children. She is undergoing another round of chemotherapy. They call her bedroom her playroom since she usually sleeps with her mother while connected to her IV. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Brynlee Morein, 2, messes with a piece of stray medical tape she found while playing in her room with her mother Christine Letendre, left, and her uncle Jake at their home in Pembroke on Monday, December 3, 2012. Brynlee has an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, an aggressive cancer that affects young children. She is undergoing another round of chemotherapy. They call her bedroom her playroom since she usually sleeps with her mother while connected to her IV.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Christine Letendre sits with her daughter Brynlee Morein, 2, at their home in Pembroke on Monday, December 3, 2012. Brynlee has an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, an aggressive cancer that affects young children. She is undergoing another round of chemotherapy. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Brynlee Morein, 2, messes with a piece of stray medical tape she found while playing in her room with her mother Christine Letendre, left, and her uncle Jake at their home in Pembroke on Monday, December 3, 2012. Brynlee has an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, an aggressive cancer that affects young children. She is undergoing another round of chemotherapy. They call her bedroom her playroom since she usually sleeps with her mother while connected to her IV. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Two-year-old Brynlee Morein loves to sing, dance and wear purple clothes. She dressed up as a cat for Halloween and visited Santa Claus this week.

She also tells her mom “we’re home” when they pull into the parking lot of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

It’s been a nearly a year since Brynlee grew sick with a rare form of cancer that affects young children. Her mother, Christine Letendre, didn’t know what was wrong with her until February, when her baby couldn’t open one of her eyes and doctors found a tumor touching her brain stem. Since then, she and her mom have spent more time in the hospital than they have at home in Pembroke. But as Brynlee began her 11th round of chemotherapy this week, her family has reason to feel hopeful.

“In some senses, it seems like it’s been a really long year, and then I think about it and it hasn’t,” Letendre said. “Everything has happened fast. . . . When I think about how little she was and how much she’s grown in this year, it’s happened really fast. But then when I think about spending all that time in the hospital this year, that’s the part that dragged on.”

Brynlee has an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, or ATRT, which is most common in very young children. She learned that only about 30 children are diagnosed with that type of cancer in the United States each year, and that about 10 percent of them survive one year, but Letendre said she doesn’t worry about the statistics anymore. After a successful surgery to remove the tumor, 10 rounds of chemotheraphy and six weeks of driving to Boston for radiation every day, she’s learned her daughter is resilient.

Brynlee’s doctors still only plan as far ahead as the next round of chemotherapy and “take it one day at a time,” Letendre said. The tumor could grow back; ATRT has a low survival rate and a high chance of recurrence.

“I love (the doctors), and everyone at Dartmouth has been great, but you have to be practical,” Letendre said. “So as much as you’re like, ‘Oh no, she’s going to beat this, she’s going to beat this,’ They still tell you, ‘You know, the prognosis is poor and you have to be practical about it.’ ”

Letendre, 24, is raising Brynlee as a single mom. She left her job at Concord Hospital the day her daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and has rarely left her side. She learned to give Brynlee shots and set her up with a feeding tube at night. The last two rounds of chemotherapy were a lower dose, so Letendre was able to give them to Brynlee from home.

“I remember the day we were first able to go home and the nurse sat down with me, she handed me this big binder, this big bag of medicine . . . and I’m like, ‘There is no way I’m going to be able to remember this, I’m going to do something wrong, I’m not going to be able to do this,’ ” she said. “Now, I just do it, I hook her up (to feeding tubes) and I do it like it’s second nature.”

Letendre also receives help from other family members, who visit the hospital often. When Brynlee isn’t at the hospital, Letendre tries to keep her busy: Going trick-or-treating; wrapping up her feeding tube with plastic to take her swimming; going to the movie theater for the first time.

“I was one of those people, I think, you know when I thought about someone with cancer you can’t go out in public . . . and it’s not like that,” she said. “We have a week or two out of the month that we can’t be around people. But the truth is that I’m a single mom so if I need to go to the store and get milk, I have to go to the store and get milk.”

The bald toddler with a pink glasses is easily recognizable, and her fight against cancer has become well-known in Pembroke and surrounding towns. A Facebook page where Letendre posts updates has more than 2,500 followers, and people know Brynlee everywhere she goes.

“We went to see the Christmas lights at the racetrack (in Loudon),” Letendre said. “She sat with Santa there and Santa actually said, ‘Oh I think I’ve seen her on Facebook.’ ”

Brynlee, who will turn 3 in June, loves the attention. She doesn’t hesitate before offering hugs to a stranger, and she doesn’t understand that she has cancer.

“And you know, she hopefully won’t remember anything, either,” Letendre said. “I guess if you’re going to get this at some point, this would be a good age.”

Letendre’s family established a fund to help pay for Brynlee’s medical bills, and friends organized several fundraising events for her this year. Although Letendre likes to think about the end of chemotherapy, she doesn’t know when she would be able to find a job and send Brynlee back to day care.

“I guess the hard part is not knowing when I’ll go back to work because I don’t know how long . . . I have to make my money last for,” Letendre said.

In many ways, Brynlee is healthier now than she was a year ago. When she got sick last December, Letendre didn’t know what was wrong. By February, the tumor had closed one of her eyes and limited motion on one side of her body.

Since her diagnosis, Brynlee has grown from a baby into a toddler. Going under anesthesia, receiving shots and being connected to a feeding tube at night are normal for Brynlee. Unlike last year, Brynlee can talk when she feels pain. Chemotherapy makes her sick, and she usually returns to the hospital with a fever about five days after each round of chemotherapy. Her stride is slightly unsteady from a side effect from one medication, but it doesn’t stop her from running and playing.

“And she’s 2, so she doesn’t know if she’s sick,” Letendre said. “So if she’s not sick, she doesn’t milk it or anything. She’s just a normal kid and then the weeks she’s sick, she’s sick.”

Brynlee will have her next scan to check for tumor growth in January, and while her mother is hopeful, she knows it may likely grow back at any time in the next five years. Using a term Letendre saw in an internet support group for parents of ATRT patients, she said she will continue to feel “scanxiety” for years.

“We’ve been lucky so far but it’s hard because you don’t want to get too excited,” Letendre said. “Because you feel like anytime something goes wrong – the other day she went to sleep and she woke up and was crying for like 10 minutes and saying ‘my belly hurts, my belly hurts.’ Now every time something like that happens I’m going to be like, ‘it’s the cancer.’ ”

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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