Child Cancer Survivor Pays It Forward, Aspires To Be Pediatric Nurse

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Cancer survivor Halle Kneeland, surrounded by family, dries off from a rainstorm after graduating from Pierson High School on June 27. COURTESY HEATHER KNEELAND

Halle Kneeland is, undeniably, an inherently positive young woman.

When the skies opened up, creating a downpour on Pierson High School’s graduation last month, the 18-year-old couldn’t help but smile as the rain soaked through her cap and gown, her long blonde curls framing her beaming face.

After all, she was simply alive. She had not only survived the COVID-19 crisis that changed the face of her senior year, but she also beat a devastating cancer diagnosis four years earlier — a chapter that defined her career path as she looks ahead toward nursing school at the University of Florida this fall.

“It definitely changed my outlook on everything,” she said, two days after graduating. “It’s just a second chance at embracing my life. I never, ever thought cancer was something that would happen to me, but I’m really glad that it did.”

It was mere weeks into freshman year when Ms. Kneeland found the tumor herself — a small but firm “weird bubble” in her stomach. She was sitting in geometry class.

“I never thought anything of it at all,” she said. “I thought it was something going on, I just didn’t think it was bad at all. I went around telling everyone to feel it.”

When her mother, Heather Kneeland — a self-admitted worrier — obliged her 14-year-old daughter later that afternoon at home in Noyac, she wasn’t immediately concerned.

But a visit to the family pediatrician quickly escalated to extensive testing at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, where the doctor delivered the grim news: Halle had a softball-sized mass on her right kidney, and she would need to see a specialist immediately.

“The radiologist had pulled me outside and, of course, my stomach dropped and I was terrified,” Heather Kneeland said. “But she was in the room and I didn’t want to convey my fear to her at that moment.”

Despite her best efforts, her daughter knew there was a problem — and for the first time since she noticed the lump, she felt “kind of freaked out,” she said.

“My Mom was keeping a brave face, but I was like, ‘Oh no, maybe something is actually going on, and they don’t want to tell me yet,’” she said. “It all really hit me when I was in school the next day.”

Just before delivering a speech — “I was running for class office,” Ms. Kneeland explained — her teacher received a call from the main office that her parents were there to pick her up and head straight to New York City.

“I’m leaving?” she remembered thinking to herself. “But I’m not ready to go yet.”
It didn’t matter. They had scheduled an appointment with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for the following day — and their diagnosis would change the young girl’s life.

“They said they knew it was cancer,” Heather Kneeland recalled. “The doctor said there’s never a tumor this size that’s not cancer, but we just didn’t know what kind. We stayed with her right until they took her into surgery. I’m sure you can imagine, it was just terrifying. My husband and I sat in the cafeteria at Sloan all that time, and I just cried the entire time.”

Halle Kneeland eats breakfast the morning after a six-hour surgery that removed a softball-sized tumor from her right kidney.

After the six-hour procedure that removed Halle Kneeland’s right kidney entirely — the organ had encapsulated the tumor — the surgeon confirmed the mass was renal cell carcinoma. And because the cancer was contained, she would not need chemotherapy or radiation.

“The surgeon is amazing, and honestly, gosh, it’s still so emotional for me,” Heather Kneeland said, her voice breaking. “They really saved her life. I never thought I’d be so happy to find out my daughter had a certain kind of cancer.”

She paused, sighing to herself. “It’s crazy how it all happened so fast,” she continued. “It was terrifying and Halle’s just so amazing. This kid never got down. I think she cried for about 30 seconds through this whole thing. She was just so positive and amazing.”

Expecting to be hospital-bound for 10 days, Halle Kneeland was out in four, which her mother attributes to her athleticism and body strength. During the process, the doctors also confirmed that she has genetic paraganglioma pheochromocytoma syndrome — a rare genetic disease that makes her more prone to grow tumors.

“Me finding my tumor made us find out that my sister and my Dad also had the genetic disorder, so it’s kind of going backwards in my family now,” Halle Kneeland said. “Even in the hospital, after I found out I did have cancer, I guess I was in shock. It all happened so quick and I never really thought that that would be something that would ever happen to me.”

In less than two weeks, Halle Kneeland went from discovering she had cancer to being declared cancer free — on September 20, 2016. But that short time inspired a change of course, particularly her experience on the pediatric floor, surrounded by young children in the midst of cancer treatment.

“I thought I was so lucky, out of all of them, because this had just happened to me, and then it was over,” she said. “So I was like, ‘How can I possibly feel bad for myself when these newborn babies are sitting next to me going through chemotherapy?’ I was so inspired by the situation I was in, by all the people around me who helped me through it, that I want to basically repeat that. I want to be the one helping others.”

In the future, Ms. Kneeland aspires to work with children in a cancer treatment center, and to show them the same kindness her nurses gave her, every step of the way.

“Without them, their support, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I just worked with some of the most amazing people and they wanted me to carry it forward. I’m just destined to help other people. If people are in similar situations that I was in, I want to help them through it and share some of my story.”

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