The last time Courtney and Dylan Campbell were able to attend a Kansas City Chiefs game, Courtney had just found out she was pregnant with their first child. It was Christmas night of 2016, and there were blessings to be had all around.
The couple transplanted to Nashville was able to be back home to Kansas City with family for the holidays. The Chiefs clinched a playoff spot that day in a win over the Denver Broncos. And the most precious gift was still yet to come.
The following August, Kelly Lou Campbell was born — right at the start of football season — and there was little chance this girl would be anything but a Chiefs fan. Her parents were from Blue Springs, Mo., and Boonville, Mo., and they met at the University of Central Missouri. They were Chiefs supporters then and always will be.
Moving to Tennessee was tough, with their families still back home, but it was the right decision for them, as Dylan had a job offer with a big construction company there that was just too good to pass up.
After Kelly Lou was born, the gifts came rolling in from back home. There was more than a few Chiefs goodies — jerseys, balls, you name it — from friends to help the couple dress their newborn daughter in the proper red-and-gold-colored gear.
Life was good. They were cherishing their newborn daughter and watching their favorite team win games more often than not.
But in early June last year, Courtney knew something just wasn’t right with Kelly Lou.
“She was getting sick a lot, and we really didn’t know why,” Courtney told PFW recently by phone. “We took her to the doctor, and they thought she had pneumonia. Her breathing was really funky. We took several tests, and nothing showed up at first.”
Then a few weeks later, on June 21 last year, the couple received news that changed their lives forever: Kelly Lou had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer most often found in children under the age of 5. Kelly Lou hadn’t even turned 1 year old when oncologists found a tumor growing in her chest.
“It was a little bigger than a tennis ball-sized,” Courtney said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, this type of cancer typically begins because of a genetic mutation (known as MYCN) that allows normal, healthy cells to continue growing without responding to the signals to stop, which normal cells do. That means the cancer cells grow and multiply out of control, which resulted in the mass in Kelly Lou’s chest.
The Campbells soon found out their new reality: Kelly Lou would have to immediately begin an aggressive, prolonged attack on the cancer. They would be in for a long, hard fight to save her life.
Courtney, 29, and Dylan, 31, knew their best chance to help Kelly Lou was to remain as positive and supportive for their daughter, to try to provide her whatever strength they could and to put as many smiles on their faces as they could so that she could live as normal a childhood as possible, even while that meant spending an enormous amount of time in hospitals.
“You go through a lot of stages,” Courtney said about the family’s journey the past six months. “It’s kind of about accepting the new norms. Everything that was normal is now different.
“You see other parents out doing all these things with their kids, and you miss that to a degree. This is just the way things are now, though, and that’s it. You just have to accept it and go with it.”
Since her diagnosis, Kelly Lou has been through six rounds of first-line chemotherapy, with four of those requiring extended stays at TriStar Centennial Medical Center Children’s Hospital. She also required stem-cell collections during her second round of chemo, and surgeons later removed the large tumor from Kelly’s Lou’s still-tiny body.
But there also has been a positivity to the visits that has surprised the Campbells.
“She actually gets pumped when we go to the hospital,” Courtney said. “That’s where she sees all her friends. She loves all of her nurses. We’re at kind of a smaller hospital, so it’s a little bit of a closer community. We’re very close to our oncologists and our doctors.”
It’s the place where Kelly Lou has learned how to walk and start talking, even as challenges get in the way. Chemo results in a lot of time in bed, lots of recovery needed for her small body. Steps backward in her development. One of the byproducts of the chemo is lost high-frequency hearing, which can impact speech and learning.
But Courtney and Dylan have marveled at their daughter’s amazing resilience.
“She doesn’t know any better,” Courtney said. “Some days she says, ‘Why don’t I feel good?’ and ‘Why are you guys doing things to me that I don’t like sometimes?’
“Like [last week], she’s playing and playing and she’ll just stop and throw up. And then she announces she’s ready to go back and play. She doesn’t know that she’s supposed to be feeling like crap.”
|(Photo by Courtney Campbell)|
At the moment, Kelly Lou is cancer-free, but the Campbells know this is just the beginning of their long fight. She will undergo the second of two stem-cell transplants, the first of which came right before Christmas, and there’s also a month of radiation coming in February.
From that point on, the aggressive, nine-month treatment plan will be completed. Then comes the waiting: follow-up tests to determine whether the cancer is staying away. Doctors want to see Kelly Lou be cancer-free for five years before they will start to be satisfied with her long-term prognosis.
“If she can reach five years cancer-free following treatment, the chances of survival are much, much higher,” Courtney said. “You still have chances to get cancer as an adult after going through chemo as a child, but your chances go up extremely.”
A quick look through Courtney’s Instagram page, and you might not know things were much different than any other young family with a happy, 1-year old child. Kelly Lou is playing. She’s smiling. Courtney and Dylan are smiling. There are positives vibes in every photo.
And lots of Chiefs red and gold, of course.
This season has been bittersweet but still important for the Campbells. They were determined to live their lives as best they can, and Chiefs games have taken on a different but important role. As the team rolled through the regular season with the best record in the AFC, the Campbells watched the games — often while Kelly Lou was in the hospital getting treatment — and looked forward to the three or four hours on Sundays as a healthy distraction.
“Games are something we look forward to,” Courtney said. “It’s fun to have that weekend, especially when we’re in the hospital. We say, ‘OK, we’re going to get pizza in the hospital and watch the Chiefs game.’ It just gives us something other than cancer to think about for a little bit.”
It hasn’t been hard for them to marvel at what Patrick Mahomes has done for the team this season, giving Chiefs fans the kind of hope that has been absent more often than not the past few decades. And it’s been easy to see their daughter’s connection to the Chiefs’ wunderkind QB.
Call her Kelly, call her Lou, call her Kelly Lou … they’re all fine as far as Courtney is concerned. But don’t get between that little girl and her favorite quarterback. It’s a weekly bond that remains as strong as ever, and it’s a nice little distraction for the parents who are doing whatever they can to make their daughter’s life as pleasant and typical as possible.
During the 2017 season, Kelly Lou most often was decked out in a Travis Kelce shirt, and it was still big enough for her to wear again this season. But with a quarterback change this season after Alex Smith was traded, Mahomes became all the rage in K.C. — and friends of the Campbells sent her a Mahomes shirt. It soon became the family’s (and the team’s, maybe) lucky charm.
“We noticed the Chiefs were winning every time she had on the [Mahomes] jersey,” Courtney said. “The first time the Chiefs lost, she wasn’t wearing her Mahomes jersey.”
|(Photo by Courtney Campbell)|
They also noticed that when he was on the screen, conjuring his football magic, Kelly Lou always seemed more excited, more aware. Courtney isn’t naïve to think that Kelly Lou somehow can appreciate any of Mahomes from a football standpoint, but she just knows that whatever he’s doing is doing something for them, too.
“She doesn’t really understand it, of course,” Courtney said. “But she really likes the ‘down, set, hike’ part. She thinks that’s really funny and laughs when she hears it.” Perhaps Mahomes’ froggy voice has something to do with it. Whatever it is, there’s no reason to second-guess Kelly Lou’s obsession now.
So that means when the Chiefs host the Indianapolis Colts for the divisional round of the playoffs on Saturday, Kelly Lou’s outfit already has been picked for her. Of course, it’ll be her lucky Mahomes No. 15 shirt.
And if they need a little extra strength, they can look at the note and autographed ball Mahomes recently sent Kelly Lou. Through friends reaching out via social media, the Chiefs caught wind of Kelly Lou’s battle and were more than happy to do whatever they could. The gift package arrived right before Christmas, just as Kelly Lou was arriving home on Dec. 23 after finishing her stem-cell transplant in the hospital.
Mahomes’ note read:
I know you can’t read yet, but I heard you’re a big Kansas City Chiefs fan, so I wanted to send a little something to brighten your day! You have a tremendous support system behind you with your family, friends and community and we want you to know that the Kansas City Chiefs are part of that as well!
You are an inspiration for all of us here at the Chiefs. Keep fighting and we’ll see you at Arrowhead when you are a little older.
|(Photo by Courtney Campbell)|
Courtney feels blessed that someone she and her family have never met — a star quarterback and possible MVP, no less — could be so supportive during their family's fight.
“It was just so thoughtful,” she said. “It means a lot to all of us.”
Courtney wants to make sure that people know she’s not telling her story to gain sympathy. She and her family are not asking for any kind of financial help. She just wants to get the message out about cancer in children, and in her mind, every little bit helps.
The Chiefs’ gesture also has helped, as have their weekly games. The Campbells understand now that it’s the playoffs, this run can end at any time. They also know that should the Chiefs make it to the Super Bowl, they might be back in the hospital to watch it. Kelly Lou has the second transplant in early February, which will require another four-to-eight-week hospital stay — followed by the month of radiation and then six months of immunotherapy.
“The past two games we’ve watched in the hospital,” Courtney said. “Kelly was super sick at the time, so she couldn’t watch them. But she’ll have her little Chiefs ball — she’s obsessed with it — and her jersey.
“She likes the fact that we watch football all the time. And we like it too.”
The couple plans to take up Mahomes’ offer to get back to Arrowhead Stadium as soon as they can to take Kelly Lou to her first Chiefs game, perhaps as soon as late September or early October, which is when her treatment is scheduled to end.
That’s the long-term goal. The short-term fight remains one they know will include more difficult times just up ahead.
But one look at Kelly Lou dancing to Adam Levine recently gives a clear window into the little girl’s spirit. That she required a feeding tube this week might be the only indication that she’s in a fight against cancer, one she’s handled as well as anyone could hope to this point.
For now, though, it’s one day and one battle at a time. That includes Saturday’s game and whatever little distraction it can provide. If Mahomes and the Chiefs can draw as much strength from Kelly Lou as she and her family have from them this season, you really have to like their chances against the Colts.
Kelly Lou's fight will be much longer than one 60-minute game. The Campbells might not know her prognosis until Mahomes is well into his career, perhaps the most famous man in the NFL by that point. But if she can make it, they won't look past what small role he helped play in her recovery.
"It means everything to us," Courtney said.