Valdosta Daily Times

December 17, 2012

Young man makes miraculous recovery

Quinten Plummer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The seeds of Kourtney Smith’s melon-sized tumor may have taken root in his liver as far back 2007, around the time of his premature birth, but it wasn’t until February of this year that his liver cancer was detected and the fight to save his life began.

His doctors prescribed enemas to free what appeared to be an intestinal clog after Kourtney complained about a stomach ache one Friday last January, says his Nana, Gloria “Peanut” Battle. She says he displayed none of the tell-tell signs of liver cancer, such as fevers or jaundice’s skin yellowing dye.

“He didn’t get any better Saturday and he woke up screaming and crying on Sunday night,” Battle says. “We took him back to the emergency room and they performed an ultrasound and other tests. They said they saw something around his liver but didn’t know what it was.”

Kourtney’s family consulted with his gastroenterologist in Atlanta, who sent the family home to Valdosta while he consulted with other doctors on the 5-year-old’s ultrasound.

“Kourtney had an appointment with his dentist scheduled shortly after the Atlanta trip,” says Battle. “But the gastroenterologist called back and told us that we needed to go to the hospital instead. She said she had already made arrangements for us.”

A biopsy was performed and Kourtney spent two weeks in the hospital, Battle said, but a diagnosis couldn’t be declared. He was discharged for a week, before the nerve-numbing news of cancer came back.

Chemical Therapy

“He came home for a week, then they called us back for chemo,” says Battle. “The tumor was so large that the doctors said they were surprised he had carried it for so long without showing symptoms.”

It was so big, says Battle, that it had pushed under his rib cage and against his back. Kourtney’s chemo treatments began in late February and lasted roughly four months, she says.

“The chemo was strong,” she says. “It shrank the tumor from the size of a watermelon down to about a quarter of that size, all in under four weeks.”

Surgery followed chemo. After some recovery time, Kourtney endured another round of chemo in May.

The second time around, chemo really took a toll on him.

“The nurse knew he was in pain,” says his sister, Aaliyah Andrews. “They would ask him to point out the areas where the pain was most intense, and he just say ‘no where.’”

Nurses struggle to inject nutrition into Kourtney’s veins and were surprised by Battle’s patient, yet effective approach. Battle says she administered his intravenous fluids orally, rather than through his arm, and spent hours on end alternating between a small dose and a cooling cloth.

While Battle was making progress, Kourtney’s body was still under heavy fire.

The chemo began damaging the good part of his liver, Battle said, so doctors switched to a Vinca alkaloid to continue the assault on the cancer.

“The Vincristine began to affect his hearing,” says Battle. “At some point, his hearing is supposed to go completely. But that’s the doctors’ diagnosis, not God’s.”

Kourtney has already lost 17 percent of his hearing, mainly on the high end of the spectrum, and he now wears a brace to support his right leg, says Kourtney’s mother, Owedia Andrews.

Days Like These

“It got to the point where it seemed as if he wouldn’t have a tomorrow,” says Battle. “The medicine wasn’t helping him. He couldn’t eat or hold down his fluids. So there were two weeks where we thought he wouldn’t be there. We cried a lot, and we prayed often.”

Though Battle had survived her own war against breast cancer, her faith was fragile, she says. The turning point came one night at the hospital, during her grandson’s most perilous days of chemo.

“I got on my knees one night and I prayed to God to prepare me now for whatever was ahead,” she says. “If you prepare me tonight, I said to God, I won’t cry anymore. From that day forward, I never worried about tomorrow.”

Doctors were taken aback by the composure of Kourtney’s family, when Battle and Company arrived at the hospital on news that Kourtney had a high fever. Battle says one of the doctors thought she had gone a little bonkers, and she and the family stopped obsessing over every detail of Kourtney’s status.

Battle says she and Kourtney were spotted in the hallway by the doctor who had questioned her sanity. Not many days had elapsed since they last spoke, but now Kourtney was up and walking

He said I see what you mean now, says Battle.

“God had to step in and let us know who’s in control,” says Andrews. “You just have to believe in God’s promise that he’ll never leave you or forsake you. We stuck together as a family and kept each other strong.”

These Days

Today, Kourtney moves from shoulder to shoulder, unable to sit still without feeling the warmth of one of his family members. He hugs on Nana, touches mom’s face, tugs on sister’s shirt before grandpa Ruben takes Kourtney and brother Nehemiah for an evening ride through Lowndes County.

His first month of schooling has ended and he has more time to explore the playground in his backyard, a dream fulfilled by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Teacher tout his reading comprehension skills and advanced cognizance, says Andrews, and he’ll forgo the rest of pre-K for kindergarten.

However, the war wounds are still there and there’s still a bit more fighting to do in order for Kourtney to continue thriving. Chemo brought on high blood pressure, so now he’s fitted with a patch and given a pill.

His spirits are high, but it’s not because Christmas is on the horizon. In fact, he says he wants nothing as he prepares for his second Christmas at home.  

“This is just blessing that we wanted to share with the community,” says Andrews. “God used him to speak to us. The things we’ve seen, how God has worked on Kourtney, most people don’t get to see up close. So now, we’re ready to do whatever God wants us to do.”

Andrews says the family looked to their matriarch, Battle, during Kourtney’s fight with cancer. Battle says she stopped looking around, and started looking up.

“I've learned more about God from Kourtney this year than I have over the previous 62 years of my life,” says Battle. “This young man made me realize that this family was depending on the wrong things in life. My cancer didn’t even influence my outlook on life like this much. He’s just amazing.”

Liver Cancer

Fast facts on liver cancer, compiled from the American Cancer Society:

• The average age at diagnosis of liver cancer is 62. More than 90 percent of people diagnosed with liver cancer are older than 45 years of age, 3 percent are between 35 and 44 years of age and less than 3 percent are younger than 35.

• Early detection of liver cancer is often difficult, because the signs and symptoms generally don’t appear until it is in its later stages.

• Currently, only a small portion of liver cancer patients qualify as candidates for a liver transplant because of the strict criteria like the size and number of tumors.

• Liver cancer is seen more often in men than in women. An average man’s lifetime risk of getting liver or intrahepatic bile duct cancer is about 1 in 85, while an average woman’s risk is about 1 in 204. Most cases occur in at-risk individuals.

• Most doctors recommend that certain people with chronic HBV infections be screened, especially those with a family history of liver cancer, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans.

• Screening for liver cancer is not recommended for people who are not at increased risk. There are no screening tests thought to be accurate enough for screening the general population.