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Keller teen Malena Brown puts on her game face to fight leukemia

Posted Friday, Aug. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Malena Brown had the kind of 15th birthday that most teenage girls can only dream of.

At her celebration last December, she got to meet superstar Justin Timberlake. She chatted with him, got her picture taken with him and he even sang Happy Birthday.

Unfortunately, Brown’s birthday meeting with Timberlake was a bit overshadowed. It took place at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas where she was undergoing treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia.

Since her diagnosis in May 2013, she’s had some very cool moments — meeting Timberlake, watching Selena Gomez perform and going to several Dallas Cowboys football games. She’s also had some moments she’d likely be willing to trade.

Malena and her family moved from Ohio to Keller in June of 2013, after her father, Gary, was hired as the running backs coach for the Dallas Cowboys.

Malena, her younger sister, Dori, and brother, Tre, began adjusting to their new schools. Her mother, Kim, worked at settling the family into their new home and a new routine, while trying to help her daughter adjust to living with leukemia. It hasn’t been easy, Kim says, but they’re making it work.

“As a family, it’s changed our perspective on life,” she says. “If my house isn’t clean, I don’t care anymore. There was a day when the house always had to be perfect. He (Gary) and I don’t argue near as much about the little things. You learn to look at the big picture and appreciate every moment.”

The last year has had its share of frustrations for all of them.

Frustrations for Gary — a two-time, NFL 1,000-yard rusher — because he could do little when he flew from Dallas to Cleveland after his daughter’s diagnosis and saw her hooked up to machines in the hospital.

Frustration for the family — they don’t understand why more people don’t get tested to be bone marrow donors. A bone marrow transplant could be just what Malena needs, but because she’s biracial, the chances of finding a match are lessened, as there are few biracial registered donors. There are no matches in her family, and a bone marrow registration drive in February failed to produce a match.

Malena’s frustrations don’t just center on the cancer. Her transition from Ohio to Texas hasn’t been easy. She moved from a town where she knew everyone to a large, unfamiliar city. She will be a sophomore at Keller High School, a much larger school than the one she attended in Ohio.

Since her diagnosis, Malena has been prone to infections. She had to wear a mask to school for a couple of weeks, and she had a four-month stint where she didn’t go to school at all. During that time, a teacher gave her home instruction three times a week.

The leukemia is bad, but the medicine, Dasatinib, was worse. It slowed the leukemia, but the side effects weren’t any better than the bruising, headaches and general malaise that were the initial signs of her illness. The medicine helped keep Malena’s body from producing the white cells associated with her leukemia, but it also depleted the bone marrow that her body needs. It brought on a condition called aplastic anemia, which can be cured with a bone marrow transplant.

Malena was able to stop taking the Dasatinib in January, and that has helped her bone marrow numbers increase. She returned to school in February and now has hopes of returning to her first love — soccer — when she begins her sophomore year this fall.

While not being on the medicine has eased the direness of Malena’s need for an immediate bone marrow match and the prospect of a transplant, more medicine seems probable given the goal of making her bone marrow produce more cells and increasing her blood platelet level. She got a good report after meeting with her doctors in June. The goal now is to stay off the meds for a short while, then start back slowly, allowing her body the time it needs to adjust to the medicine before school starts.

That allows time for the Browns to take a much-needed family vacation, and lets Malena attend Camp Esperanza, a Dallas summer camp for children with cancer.

“I feel 200 percent,” Malena says. “That’s why I’m a little nervous to go back on the medicine. I don’t want [it] to have the same side effects that it had last time, and then I have to go through the whole thing again.”

With their fingers crossed and hopes high that the worst might be behind them, Kim and Gary often reflect on the journey of the past year and the difficulties they’ve faced. Malena’s mother was the point person for getting her to doctor visits — sometimes as many as three per week — but it was Gary who had a raw understanding of what his daughter was going through.

Sporting the same physique at 44 that made him a bull of a back when he played for the Houston Oilers, San Diego Chargers and the New York Giants, Gary had his own battle with cancer. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with colon and kidney cancer. Both his parents had cancer, as did cousins and an uncle.

Gary says his cancer can be linked to his family history, but that’s not the case with CML, which isn’t hereditary and is seldom seen in children. According to the American Cancer Society, CML is so rare in children that it doesn’t even make the list of childhood cancers. The average age of diagnosis for the leukemia is 64. Nearly half the cases involve people older than 65 and the odds of getting it are one in 5,888.

Those statistics don’t matter to the Browns, though. Not when, two years after having surgery to remove his cancer, Gary had to watch his daughter begin her battle through the uncomfortable lens of a bystander.

“Unless you’ve been through it, you really don’t know what it feels like,” he says. “For me to be able to talk to her, it was easy. I knew the fear she was going through. The things that were on her mind. But as for being a 14- or 15-year-old girl, I didn’t know that part. For a teenager to be going though it is a whole different experience. I tried to give her as much as I could from my side. Then she had to go her own journey.”

Some things haven’t changed — younger brother Tre still picks on his big sister. And some things have — Malena and Dori have become closer over the last year. Kim says Malena’s cancer, and the fact that Gary’s job always has the potential to require a family move, have made them a closely-knit unit.

The Browns also have realized how much people are willing to help — including Gary’s employer.

When Malena was spending so much time at the hospital in 2014, it was the Cowboys who lent a hand, Kim says.

“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” she says. “So supportive. When she was first in the hospital here, we had dinner for, like, two weeks straight. The wives came together and brought us dinner. The outreach department wanted to know what to do to help. They’ve been very supportive.”

Gary echoes his wife’s sentiments, adding that the Jones family and head coach Jason Garrett had no issues with him traveling to Ohio last year, despite the team’s demanding off-season workouts.

There’s no debate about Gary’s priorities. “It’s a juggling act, but most men would say their family over the job any day of the week,” he says. “That’s no different with me. I know my job’s unique, but I think we have enough men on the staff, enough great people in the organization who understand it’s family first. The Joneses were great. Jason was great. It was a great experience with them allowing me to take care of my family.”

The family is moving on with individual plans despite the uncertainties of Malena’s health. Malena is determined to get back to playing soccer after missing nearly two years. She still bruises more easily than other kids and any sports injury would be exaggerated because of her leukemia, but she wants to play.

She says things are going so well now that the thought of cancer sometimes escapes her. Sometimes.

“Since I’ve been off my medicine, sometimes I forget,” the brave teen says. “When I want to do something, I have to make sure it’s OK, though, because I have a serious illness. I just want to think of it as ‘it’s my life,’ and it’s something that has to be taken care of. I just want to go on being a normal human being.”

For information on testing to become a possible donor, visit www. bethematch.org.

NOMINATE A ‘HERO NEXT DOOR’

Have an interesting colleague, neighbor or friend who devotes countless hours to doing good works in the community, who personifies words like “courage” and “endurance” or who quietly specializes in making Keller a better place for others? Nominate them for our regular feature “Hero Next Door.” Send nominations to sengelland@star-telegram.com with “Hero Next Door” in the subject line. Write a short description (200 words or fewer) about why they should be featured, and include a photo, if you have one. Be sure to include the nominee’s email address and/or phone number, as well as your own contact information.

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