When she grows up, 10-year-old Riley says, she’ll be a teacher. And a professional dancer. Oh — and don’t forget — she’s going to be president too. Anyone who knows Riley wouldn’t be at all surprised.
But then, Riley is full of surprises. She loves school and has a special “nerd dance” she does just to show how much. She’s generous and loving with her friends and family, and they return the sentiment. Dance is her life. Ever since she was a toddler, she’s been dancing: tap, jazz, lyrical and her favorite, ballet. Even the diagnosis of a pilocytic astrocytoma brain tumor couldn’t keep her from performing on stage.
Riley was 9 years old when she learned she was sick. She’d been wearing glasses since she was 2, but over the summer developed headaches. Then, she realized she couldn’t see out of her right eye. Not wanting to complain, she kept it a secret from her mom, Dawn, her father, Joseph, and even her little sister, Raegan. But on the second day of school, at a routine eye exam, her doctor noticed. “I think she has a tumor,” the doctor whispered to Dawn, trying to keep the news from Riley. Riley would have none of that. If something was wrong, she wanted to know about it. A few minutes later, crying in the car, Dawn told her. That afternoon, Riley had an MRI scan. “Take her to Johns Hopkins,” the doctors said. And that, Joseph says, “is when our whole world turned upside down.”
Since that day, Riley has undergone a brain biopsy and several rounds of chemotherapy. Through it all, she’s remained positive and unafraid. “Riley never asked, ‘Why me?’” Dawn says.
“I know why God picked me,” Riley says with a grin that lights up her eyes. “It’s because I’m strong and I’m going to kick Rodger’s butt.” Rodger — the tumor, that is. With her impish sense of humor, Riley has even given her illness a name.
Rodger must be listening. With treatment, the tumor is shrinking, and much of Riley’s lost eyesight has returned. Through it all, she leads a full, rich, enthusiastic life. Only one year after her initial diagnosis, Riley went away to camp. “It was scary — for me,” Dawn admits. Then she smiles. “Riley, of course, had a wonderful time.”
Every morning — even the mornings when Riley was in the hospital — begins with her ritual dance warmup. “Dance,” Dawn says, “is Riley’s therapy. She responds better to the medications when she’s active, doing the things she loves.”
She continues to dance each winter in the Nutcracker. “Even losing my hair couldn’t keep me from the stage,” Riley says, laughing. The heads of her dance company know they can count on her. When other dancers can’t perform, they call on Riley to fill in.
Riley’s illness has inspired her to give back and help other children and families in need. She raises funds to support other families and for research for a new generation of cures. She’s a great advocate, unafraid to stand up and tell her story. Everyone who meets her comments on her positive attitude and her infectious smile.
From the beginning, Riley’s maturity has made her an important part of her treatment plan. “Tell me the truth,” she says to her parents. “All I want to know is what’s going on.” With the support of her family and her doctors at Johns Hopkins, Riley has turned a scary diagnosis into a livable illness. “Riley’s tumor will probably always be with her,” Dawn says, “but it won’t slow her down.” Even when she’s a professional dancer, a teacher — or president.