Harper Hershberger of Newton is in the fight of her life, and her life is only beginning.
The 14-month-old girl has been diagnosed with a neuroblastoma — in her case, a cancerous tumor that has not only wrapped itself around her spine but grown into it.
"We are going to beat this thing," said her father, 35-year-old Ryan Hershberger. "It will be a long, rough road, but we will be a stronger family."
In many ways the road has already been a long one — it took months and doctor visit after doctor visit to get a cancer diagnosis.
Born in June of 2016, Harper was a fussy baby. She was colicky. In January her parents started noticing signs that her health wasn't very good — she started getting regular ear infections. She would get treated for those, and start acting better.
Then, one night her mother noticed a lump on Harper's back. It didn't look like there was a bruise, or anything that would cause such a lump. The family headed to the doctor's office.
The first time she was seen for the lump, it was diagnosed as a cyst. It was soft, and did not appear to be anything serious. Doctors believed it would go away after a few months. The repeated ear infections continued.
Then, just after her birthday, the thing started to take a turn for the worse.
"She started crying more and sleeping less," Ryan said. "When you watched her, it was like she was writhing in pain."
When he demonstrates what he saw, it looks a lot like someone trying to stretch out their back. Harper kept making trips to the doctor. Blood work came back OK. X-rays and sonograms of the lump did not reveal anything. Doctors prescribed antibiotics and steroids, and Harper would get a little bit better, but in the words of Ryan, she would crash. Then a blood test showed mononucleosis. It made sense, and the family canceled an appointment with a specialist.
However, after a brief improvement, things again turned south.
"All of sudden she stopped sleeping," Ryan said. "She would wake up every 30 minutes. ... She was crying, and acting like she was in pain. We called them episodes. She would writhe and cry."
The family could get her calmed, but it was obvious something was wrong.
They went back to the doctor, hoping for an answer. In early August, she was admitted to the hospital. It was after an MRI that they were hit with the news no parent ever wants to hear — Harper had a cancerous mass on her spine.
"I remember thinking 'I don't want to bury my baby,'" Ryan said. "I can't."
Several days of testing revealed the mass as neuroblastoma. Biopsies sent to the Mayo Clinc have not returned as of yet, but doctors at Wesley Medical Center started treatment right away. Harper currently is scheduled for chemotherapy for one week out of every month. Just how many months of treatment are needed is not yet known.
In between those treatments, Harper needs shots administered by her family. That cost $435 per week, after insurance. Ryan is able to provide medical insurance through his job at Wal-Mart.
That nearly $1,500 per month bill isn't the only hit the family is taking, either. Harper's mother had to quit her job to take care of Harper.
"That cut our income in half," Ryan said. " ... It has been a real learning experience for me and my wife. ... We have a really good support system."
Indeed. Almost immediately after treatment began, friends and family began raising funds for Harper's treatment. "Team Harper" t-shirts appeared online, as did a Gofundme.com campaign at gofundme.com/help-support-little-miss-harper.
"All kinds of people have started to support us and Harper," Ryan said. "It is hard to put into words the gratitude I have. I feel like there is a debt that I will never pay back."
The Gofundme campaign published a goal of $15,000. To date, more than $700 has been raised.
As the family awaits more information, they know the goals that doctors have. The goal is to shrink the tumor and then operate to remove it completely. If successful, Harper will learn to walk and be able to play with the sisters she adores. The goal is a normal life.
"We have an opportunity to fix this," Ryan said. "We have a good chance of curing our daughter."
Harper is the youngest of three girls. She has a sister who is 12 and a sister who is 4. The girls live with Ryan and their mother.