A life too short

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Many mothers get to watch their daughters grow up, drive a car, go to college and get married. Melanie Thomas will not. Her 6-year-old has two months left to live.

Thomas took Cheyanne "Sissy" Chantry to the doctor in April because the kindergartener started falling on her right side and had trouble pulling herself out of the pool.

"She was the healthiest little girl there ever was, no colds, no going to the doctor," Thomas, 33, said. "One ear infection, that's it, that's all she's ever had. Then, bam."

Doctors at Barrow Neurological Institute of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix diagnosed Sissy with diffuse pontine glioma - a tumor had wrapped around her brain stem.

The doctors said Sissy had two years to live. She received radiation therapy five days a week for six weeks. In June, doctors pronounced her medical scans clean. The tumor was gone, for now.

Sissy went back to her life. While living at her mother and stepfather Brian's home in Tonopah with her brothers Chad, 8, and Chase, 10, and visiting her father, Cavin Chantry, who lives in New River, she played with friends, started first grade at Ruth Fisher Elementary School, got a dog and lost two front teeth.

2 years to 3 months
On Thanksgiving Day Thomas noticed Sissy using her left hand instead of her right and that she had trouble lifting her right leg. At the hospital that night, an MRI scan at the hospital showed the tumor had returned.

"That pattern is unfortunately all too common. The radiation treatment works, but it can't kill all the cells, it can't completely eliminate the tumor," said Jonathan Ashman, the radiation oncologist who has treated Sissy since April. "It does a good job of killing most of the tumor, but some of the cells become resistant to the treatment and they always grow back."

The doctors gave Sissy three months.

"When this first happened in April, they told me I had two years, I wanted to hit them and say, 'What happened? I have nothing,'" Thomas said. "I didn't get the two years. I got three months."

Armed with stacks of medical paperwork, arrangements with Hospice of the Valley and books with titles such as Children Die, Too, Thomas brought Sissy home.

"One doctor told me, 'Take her home and enjoy her, have fun with her while you've got her because there's nothing else we can do for her,'" Thomas said. "That meant a lot to me. He was honest."

Communities rally to help
The two communities of Tonopah and New River, nearly 80 miles apart, have raised more than $16,000 for Sissy. Fundraisers held this month at Gavilan Peak Pizzeria in New River and Whiskey River in Phoenix brought in $14,400.

About 15 teachers and staff members from Ruth Fisher and Winters Well elementary schools in Tonopah participated in a fundraising walk Dec. 15.

Amy Blaylock, Sissy's kindergarten teacher, organized the event held at Tartesso Community Park in north Buckeye.

The eight-year veteran teacher called Sissy one of the most caring students she has taught.

"She's so sweet, she always made sure she was sharing, was always taking care of others," Blaylock said. "If someone needed some help with something, she would always help.

Blaylock said the walk raised $2,000 and Tonopah Joe's café is still collecting donations.

Thomas had planned to set $10,000 aside for funeral costs until a new friend told her otherwise. The family attended a Phoenix Suns basketball game earlier this month as guests of Julie and Tom Chambers, a former Suns All-Star and host of "Suns Gametime."

"She [Julie] heard that and told me, 'You spend every penny. We will make sure everything will be taken care of,'" Thomas said.

Sissy took to Tom Chambers, Thomas said. The 6-foot-10-inch former power forward carried a 50-pound Sissy around at the game, brought her favorite foods, chocolate fudge, and has kept in touch with the family since.

Thomas said she thanks everyone who has contributed. She believes Sissy has touched people's lives and perhaps that is one reason why she is here.

"These people, their hearts are just open and I don't know that maybe God wanted for people to open their hearts and see what's actually happening - and that it can happen to anybody," Thomas said. "That may be the key point, it can happen to anyone."

'I want her happy'
Since Thanksgiving, Sissy's family has filled her days with whatever she desires, from drawing stars and grocery shopping, to making ice cream and visiting family.

"If she wants to do something, I'm going. If she wants to go to New York, I'm going to New York," Thomas said. "I want her happy."

On a Saturday in mid-December, Sissy played in her pink room decorated with princesses and butterflies among a pink television, a pink cat in a ballet tutu and a Doodle Bear signed by her kindergarten class.

Clad in a new black dress with a leopard print jacket, Sissy introduced her many stuffed animals, including the silly cat, the funny cat, the baby cat and the singing bear.

Sissy could walk with a pronounced limp, but had virtually no use of her right arm or hand. As she gave her stuffed animals checkups and administered medicine with a toy doctor kit, she told jokes.

"Why did the banana cross the road?" she said, pale green eyes held wide. "It wanted to split."

Her speech was slightly slurred, because of the tumor causing the right side of her body to slowly shut down. When she spoke, her soft voice rang melodic - like a tiny bell struggling to ring a little louder.

"Why did the orange cross the road?" Sissy said with a giggle. "It wanted to get squished."

Sissy said she was looking forward to her first airplane ride, which would bring her and her family to their first trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.

"Two more days?" she said, holding up two small fingers.

Thomas nodded.

Sissy's wish
A day later, as they prepared to leave for a Dec. 17 trip to Florida, courtesy of Make-A-Wish Foundation, Sissy's right side gave out and she could no longer walk. Her tongue does not function so she cannot talk and has trouble eating.

She spent most of the time at Give Kids the World Village, Sea World, Disney World and Universal Studios in a wheelchair. But that did not deter her excitement or happiness, Thomas said.

Sissy panned the less thrilling attractions. She wanted to ride roller coasters.

"If it didn't go fast and twist and turn, she didn't want anything to do with it," Thomas said.

Make-A-Wish paid for Sissy and her immediate family's five-day trip to central Florida. In total, 18 family members took the trip, including a pair of grandmothers, a few aunts and several cousins.

At Thomas' parents' house in Phoenix on Thursday, Sissy nodded and grinned as her aunt, Michelle Ramirez, 5-year-old cousin Robert and Thomas relayed the trip for her. Sissy laughed and nodded, her ever-present wide, toothless grin spread from ear to ear as they discussed meeting Cinderella, taking pictures with Aladdin and riding Space Mountain.

She left her mother's warm lap to make snowflakes with a software program. The computer mouse was on the right hand side of the keyboard, so Sissy directed Ramirez where to snip the on-screen paper. As the snowflakes unfolded, Sissy's grin grew wider.

Thomas' father, Michael Coyle, or Papa (pronounced pay-paw) to his grandchildren, is deacon at the family's church, Laveen Baptist Church in south Phoenix. He has worked as a missionary in Mexico and Guatemala and helped the sick and the dying. Even so, "nothing prepares you for this," he said. "Nothing,"

Coyle said he believes God readied Sissy for coping with her disease. He recounted how she would walk through the house singing "Hallelujah" as loud as she could.

"She just makes it easier on all of us because of her joy - she just stays joyful," he said.

Tests of motherhood
Thomas credits God for her ability to cope each day.

"God is working through me and with me and helping me to stay strong for her," Thomas said. "I give all my credit, it all goes to God. If not, I'd be a basket case."

While Thomas told Sissy's older brothers about her illness and that she will die, she decided not to tell Sissy.

Ashman, who specializes in treating pediatric brain tumors, said he talks to parents on a case-by-case basis about whether or not to inform a child she has a terminal disease.

"Six-year-olds are difficult, they are old enough to understand the words, but their ability to process is difficult," Ashman said. "I try to help as much as I can and talk to the children on an age-appropriate level; a lot of times it does require a lot of counseling help."

Thomas said Sissy knows she is sick.

"Nobody has really told her how sick she is. But, it's almost as if the Lord is preparing her for this," Thomas said. "She has dreams about being with God. She tells me she can't wait to be with God."

Thomas said she is glad she has time to prepare, that their friends and family have time.

"If this goes away, by some miracle, I won because I got to keep her," Thomas said. "If it doesn't, I won because she going to be up in heaven with the Lord - it's a win win."

Coyle commended his daughter's strength.

"Our pastor told the congregation last week, 'if you really want to see how to walk with God - just watch Melanie,'" he said.

A short future
The family has plans to take Sissy to the Grand Canyon Railroad's North Pole Express this week, to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Jan. 11 and to a Hannah Montana concert Jan. 22.

"We'll do whatever she can do," Thomas said.

What they will not do is visit the doctors anymore. A hospice nurse comes to their house at least once a week. Sissy will spend her remaining time at home.

Ashman said the tumor will shut down her sensory functions and her brain will not be able to tell her body to breathe.

"Eventually that's how it will take her life," he said. "Essentially, she'll go to sleep."

Thomas said now what she needs and wants are prayers, "just prayers," she said.

While they welcome visitors, Thomas has a firm rule in place in their home.

"I tell everybody who wants to come visit with her, that's fine - there's no crying here," Thomas said. "She doesn't need to see that, she doesn't understand why people cry."

Keeping Sissy's smile on her face, though it may be slightly lopsided now, is crucial to Thomas.

"I think you're an angel," Thomas said to her daughter, though she was out of earshot across the room. "You have to be."

Rebecca I. Allen can be reached by e-mail at rallen@westvalleyview.com.

Donations for Cheyanne "Sissy" Chantry can be at
AZ Central Credit Union under the name "Cheyanne Chantry"
and at Wells Fargo, account # 640-0909054
Those interested in helping the family may call Michelle Ramirez at 602-702-0108 or Celeste Lewis at 623-703-7321.

Rebecca I. Allen
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