Kellee Edwards sits on the front porch of her home in the Meadowthorpe neighborhood watching bicyclists and walkers power past.
Because of her advanced cancer, she can only watch the people with powerful limbs and boundless energy soaring by. Her future is fuzzy. But she can plan for the future of her daughter, who is only 6 years old.
Edwards, 45, has Stage IV small-cell lung cancer that has spread to her liver. The cancer first appeared in 2016 and briefly went into remission after treatment. Now it’s back.
She is still fighting it, with chemotherapy and immunotherapy. What terrifies her is not the cancer itself. It’s that, barring a miracle, she won’t see her daughter, Kate Whitlock, grow up.
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“My prognosis is not so great,” Edwards said in an introductory note to a reporter.
That’s why she has signed up Kate for Camp Kesem, a camp for children ages 6 to 16 who have a family member with cancer. This is the first year that the week-long nationwide camp has been held in Kentucky. University of Kentucky students will serve as administrators and counselors.
Kesem operates more than 70 free summer camps in 34 states. Camps are financed by individual donations and corporate support; they’re free to participants.
The Camp Kesem session this year will be June 11 to 17 at Life Adventure Center in Versailles.
Sarah Landers, a UK student who is spearheading the effort, lost her grandfather to cancer when she was 12.
“The focus of the camp is to give them a getaway, give them that fun childhood experience that any kid would have,” Landers said.
Edwards hopes that Kate makes lifelong friends at the camp.
“Knowing you are probably not going to see your child grow up is nearly unbearable, but there are uplifting moments of kindness and compassion that cannot be ignored,” Edwards said. “I feel like this camp is one of those.”
In person, Edwards is upbeat and cordial. She emphasizes the “if something happens to me” aspect of her illness with regard to her little girl, rather than the palliative care aspect of her cancer treatment.
Small-cell lung cancer is not operable. When the cancer has spread to a distant part of the body, the five-year survival rate is two percent, according to Cancer.net.
“I could live a couple of years or six months,” Edwards said.
In the meantime, she said, “I have no intention of laying around and waiting to die. ... Until they tell me it’s not working, I’m going to believe that it’s working.”
Edwards is employed with the J. Peterman clothing company. Most of her work is done from home. She and her husband, John Whitlock, met while both were working for the Corbin Times-Tribune; they moved to Lexington when John was working for the Kentucky Press Association in Frankfort.
Edwards has helped raise two adult nephews; she also is stepmother to her husband’s grown daughter from his first marriage.
Because of severe endometriosis, Edwards thought she would never carry a child. She and John bought and took a pregnancy test as a lark on Edwards’ 39th birthday because she was feeling unwell. They were shocked when it was positive.
Edwards said she always knew her child would be a girl.
Before she began treatments for her returned cancer, Edwards had one request: She wanted to take Kate to Disney World. She did, and took lots of pictures.
“That child is my joy and everything. I couldn’t love something more,” she said.
Doctors tell her she’s not going to get better, “but because I’m me, I can’t believe that.” She is trying an alkaline diet and is reading about other dietary therapies such as the ketogenic diet, which is similar to other low-carb, high-fat diets.
“I believe in my gut that it’s going to be a really positive experience for her,” Edwards said of Camp Kesem. “My job as a parent at this point ... is to do my best to get her some coping skills for if the ‘what if?’ happens,” Edwards said. “I imagine losing your mother, especially at her age, is really difficult.”
What is Camp Kesem?
Camp Kesem is described on its website — Campkesem.org — as “a nationwide community spearheaded by college student leaders ... supporting this often-neglected population through innovative, fun-filled programs.”
The “population” is children and adolescents who have cancer in their families.
The first Camp Kesem was started by Iris Rave at Stanford University with four student leaders in 2000. “Kesem,” the Hebrew word for “magic,” was chosen as a name.
Camp Kesem has used 6,642 student leaders to provide camp experiences for more than 11,352 children. Space is available for the Kentucky camp this summer.