VIDEO BY MACY SALAMA
The Stafford family got the news on Feb. 25. The youngest member of their family, 6-year-old Delaney, had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“You could have taken a large hammer to our skulls and it probably would have been less of a blow to us at that point,” Tom Stafford, Delaney’s father, said.
Freshman Emily Stafford — an outside hitter/middle hitter for the Webster University volleyball team and Delaney’s older sister — was in her dorm lounge when she first heard the news of Delaney’s diagnosis. Her dad sent her an email explaining that her sister had cancer.
Emily said she was scared and began to Google leukemia, which heightened her fear.
“I was in our room when she got the phone call,” Hope Birch, Emily’s roommate, said. “She came into the room crying and told me her sister was really sick in the hospital. The next morning, they confirmed the leukemia. To console her, I told her about my experiences with cancer so she wouldn’t feel so alone.”
Birch said Emily was anxious and became uncommunicative. She said Emily didn’t get much sleep after she heard about the diagnosis.
Diagnosis for Delaney
Feb. 21 was a typical day in the Stafford home. Tom and Stacey Stafford sent their children off to school in Denver.
Before leaving for school, Delaney complained about an ear infection. In response, her father set up a doctor’s appointment for that day, only to be vetoed by Delaney. She didn’t want to miss reading day at kindergarten, and went to school despite her ear pain.
Later, Delaney’s school nurse sent her home because she cried about the earache. At 10 p.m., Tom and Stacey took Delaney to the emergency room (ER) because the glands under her ears (lymph nodes) were swollen and caused her face to swell.
While at the ER, doctors ran tests on Delaney. Because they were unsure of the results, an ambulance transported Delaney to the children’s hospital in Aurora, Colo. There, the doctors prescribed antibiotics and discharged her after a night stay.
That Monday, Stacey Stafford took Delaney to a follow-up appointment. Delaney’s blood was drawn multiple times. The family waited for the phone to ring.
The results came in.
“You need to call on all the support systems that you have because we believe Delaney probably has leukemia, and you need to get her back to the emergency room right away where she will be admitted,” Tom Stafford said the doctor told him.
Starting the fight
Delaney started regular chemotherapy, consumed large amounts of medication, felt extreme leg pain and gained 25 percent of her body weight. She also has a port in her chest where the doctors administer chemo. Emily said Delaney jokingly calls it her “third boob.”
Delaney began a home-school program to keep up with the other students in her kindergarten class. Emily said Delaney missing out on school and not seeing her friends was one of the hardest aspects for her sister to overcome.
Delaney returned to school on April 15. Emily said Delaney’s battle with her hair loss is another sore subject.
“The other day my dad was giving her a bath. There were some strands of her hair floating in the water, and she was trying to hide them,” Emily said. “I think she’s ashamed of it.”
Tom Stafford’s friend told the Stafford family about the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a childhood cancer charity for which volunteers shave their heads to raise money for cancer research. Emily said her family and friends raised $2,000 through the St. Baldrick’s website.
The Staffords also held a St. Baldrick’s event in Colorado. Emily flew home for the event. Emily said friends and family came out in support — as well as people they barely knew — to shave their heads in honor of Delaney.
Emily offered to shave her head like her dad, but said Delaney wouldn’t allow it. Emily said Delaney teased her and said, “You would look even weirder than you do now.” Instead, Emily donated 14 inches of her blonde hair to Locks of Love.
Emily has a support system at Webster not only with her friends, but also with the volleyball team. The team and some coaches donated to the St. Baldrick’s fundraiser in addition to sending Delaney a Webster volleyball T-shirt.
Emily said Delaney is a tomboy who loves football, the outdoors, the Denver Broncos and mustaches. As a reward for taking her medicine, Delaney receives a fake mustache. She appreciates them in all forms — lollipop mustache, Sharpie mustache and stick-on furry mustaches.
In honor of Delaney’s love for mustaches, Tom Stafford created the Facebook page Cancer Can Kiss My Stache. As a fundraiser, Tom’s friend made T-shirts with the slogan on it.
Emily said the official recovery date was set at 2 years and 8 months, but has since been shortened to 2 years and 3 months. She said Delaney received so much love that she is hopeful for her future battle.
“There has been so much support it’s overwhelming,” Emily said. “Our entire house is covered in Welcome Home posters and filled with packages and presents for her. She gets so much mail every day from friends all over. All of the support has been so amazing and such a blessing to the whole family.”