Kelsey Funderburk speaks, and it’s hard to tell if it’s the cancer or the teenager talking.
“I get away with a lot more,” she says, each word filtered through a wry smile. “That’s the way it should be, though. When you go through something like this and you’re spoiled anyway, that’s how it is.”
Funderburk, 14, is a brown-eyed ball of opinion. The Northwestern High School freshman is sure she knows more than her mother. She admits that she’s “a very judgmental person.” She’ll tell anyone she’s smart, nice and “didn’t get hit by any of the ugly branches” on the family tree.
Her mom, Lisa, rolls her eyes more than a few times as they talk. Kelsey insists she knows which high school football teams were strongest before she was born, or she argues whether they cook at home, or try Bojangles’ or Chick-fil-A.
“She’s gotten to be very vocal since her surgery,” Lisa said.
A rare diagnosis
The pain started innocently.
“I’ve had headaches as far back as I can remember, but they got worse,” Kelsey said.
Migraine-like symptoms began in November. February brought multiple eye doctor and specialist visits, numerous scans. At first doctors thought she had a swollen optic nerve. They learned she had a tumor in the optic chasm behind her right eye. Still, there was optimism heading into surgery March 13, a Friday.
The surgery should have taken an hour. It took three. Surgeons only removed 60 percent and started talking about grades. Her mother stopped thinking of it as a tumor.
“You grade cancer,” she said. “I knew right then we were on a whole different plane.”
Charlotte doctors called it a Stage 2 Rosette-forming glioneuronal tumor. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital confirmed. First diagnosed in 2009, the cancer has fewer than 100 documented cases. None in the location of Kelsey’s.
“They will never be able to get it all out because of the location of it,” Lisa said.
For now the only treatment is patience. Doctors will monitor for growth. If it grows, 52 weeks of chemotherapy await. Radiation is not an option.
“We were completely blindsided by it,” she said. “I didn’t even know what to say.”
Living with pain
Kelsey has daily headaches and occasional migraines, often heading straight from school to bed. She sometimes stumbles or stutters. The family awaits test results on possible cognitive damage. Kelsey can’t remember much of her eighth-grade year, spent on pain medication. She can’t play basketball as she had the year before.
Yet the physical pain is only part of her struggle.
“Most of my friends stopped talking to me when they found out I had cancer,” Kelsey said.
Some, she said, thought they might catch cancer if they spent time with her. Others told her they would be too sad if she died. A guidance counselor at York Preparatory Academy and a male friend – a boy friend, but not a boyfriend, inducing another eye roll from mom – stand out as exceptions. Otherwise the cancer came with a dose of loneliness.
It also came with a price tag.
The family already cared for Lisa’s mom with Alzheimer’s before the cancer diagnosis. Darrell Funderburk works at a Rock Hill glass company, but even with insurance paying for 80 percent of hospital costs, the rest adds up quickly.
“Every day, every single day, there’s a doctor bill of some sort that comes in the mail,” Lisa said. “It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even open them.”
One procedure cost what a new car would. One doctor charged $800 a day, and the family can’t recall seeing him. The family pays what they can, when they can. They never look far past the coming day. Cancer taught them that lesson.
Kelsey would like to think of homecoming events or prom someday.
“I think about it as, if I wake up tomorrow, I’m doing good,” she said.
A helping hand
A new school this year means new friends. So far, many have embraced Kelsey. Many try to keep drama away from her rather than adding to it, she says. Those new friends aren’t alone.
Extended Biker Family set up a Krusade for Kelsey in Rock Hill on Saturday. It will involve motorcycles, spaghetti dinners and entertainment to raise money for the family.
On Oct. 4, the Funderburks will be one of two families benefiting from the Lake Wylie Children’s Charity concert. Thousands will organize, volunteer or give to help the family.
“They’re coming out for our child, which is pretty awesome,” Lisa said.
Kelsey likes that sort of attention, sometimes. The baby of four siblings by almost a decade, she’s used to it. Other times she’d rather draw or binge on chick flick novels. Or consider her latest hair color experiment. It’s red this week.
“The way I see it is, you should color it while you’ve got it,” Kelsey said.
Again, Lisa gives Kelsey that look. They talk football and boys, and home economics classes. Kelsey insists they’ve grown no closer through the cancer, the constant trips to so many doctors. But her smile hints otherwise.
They try not to think too far ahead, but sometimes indulge. Kelsey once wanted to write books for children. Now she wants to be a grief counselor for them. Lisa wouldn’t be surprised if Kelsey became a lawyer.
“She would be good at it,” Lisa said. “I don’t think she’d ever shut up long enough for anybody to believe the other guy’s story.”
The pair go on and on, back and forth. They talk calendars too full of medical visits, the “patient on the run” situation after surgery where Kelsey wouldn’t wait for someone to get her a drink, “old people music” on a school intercom, the geography teacher Kelsey owed an apology after a recent outburst.
Kelsey thinks about the upcoming events. Not in what they mean to family finances, but to her as she faces a cancer fight they never saw coming.
“It’s not even the attention itself,” Kelsey said. “It’s feeling like so many people care about me. There was a time I thought nobody cared.”
John Marks: 803-831-8166
Want to help?
Extended Biker Family hosts “Krusade for Kelsey” 1-4 p.m. Sept. 19 at Rock City Tavern in Rock Hill. A $10 donation includes a spaghetti dinner. Events include a raffle, auction and door prizes, along with entertainment by Angel Incident. For more information, call 803-230-0197.
Lake Wylie Children’s Charity hosts its annual benefit concert noon-6 p.m. Oct. 4 at the T-Bones on the Lake lawn. The event includes music, a silent auction, bake sale, kids zone and more. For more, visit lkwchildrenscharity.org or search for the group on Facebook.