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Monroeville girl won't let optic tumor steal her winning attitude

| Saturday, May 2, 2015, 10:20 p.m.
April Hanahan, 36, of Monroeville congratulates her daughter, Kelsey, 5, seconds after the girl crossed the finish line Downtown during the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon on Saturday, May 2, 2015. Kelsey, who has a rare tumor on her optic nerve, is legally blind.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Kelsey's father, Tom Hanahan, 36, takes a break from work as a chef to congratulate his daughter at the finish line of the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon on Saturday, May 2, 2015, Downtown.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Kelsey Hanahan, 5, of Monroeville flexes her muscles after running the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon on Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Kelsey Hanahan, 5, of Monroeville trains Friday, May 1, 2015, with her parents, April and Tom, on the Eliza Furnace Trail in Pittsburgh. Kelsey has an optic glioma, a rare tumor that sits on the optic nerve. It is benign but cannot be removed because attempting to do so could cause complete blindness, coma or brain damage.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
April Hanahan (right), 36, of Monroeville laughs as her daughter, Kelsey, gets a ride on the shoulders of her aunt, Amy Bates, 38, of Natrona Heights, after running the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon on Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Kelsey Hanahan, 5, of Monroeville walks with her brother, Nick Hanahan, 14, of Sharpsville, who cheered her on during the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon on Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Kelsey Hanahan and her mother, April, pose for a picture after the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

One year ago, a little girl waited for her mom at the finish line.

Kelsey Hanahan held flowers and a teddy bear. She didn't quite understand what her mom had accomplished, but the moment she recognized her mom's face in the sea of runners, she ran to hug her.

“I cried,” April Hanahan said, recalling the day she finished her first half-marathon at the Pittsburgh Marathon. “There is no better feeling in this world than your child being proud of you and running to hug you.”

And there is no worse feeling, April knows, than learning that your child is gravely ill.

Months before the race, April brought her daughter to the hospital because the girl's poor eyesight was getting worse. The doctor ordered an MRI. April thought, “Well, this must be pretty standard,” and waited for news.

Hours later, a doctor she didn't know approached her with terrible words:

Your daughter has a brain tumor. It is causing her to go blind. We should start chemo today.

“In that one moment, I truly felt like my whole world was over. My hopes for my child were shattered,” recalled April, 36, of Monroeville. “Will she die? Chemo — will she be sick all the time?”

Kelsey, now 5, has an optic glioma, a rare tumor that rests on the optic nerve. It is benign but cannot be removed because attempting to do so could cause complete blindness, coma or brain damage.

Kelsey's vision loss — she is legally blind — is irreversible. She has no peripheral vision and struggles to make out objects more than 10 feet away.

“I remember going home and crying for a few days and being so hurt and confused for my poor baby,” April said. “Although she was not gone, we went through a grieving process over this whole thing.”

Treatment began at once. April expected Kelsey — the little girl who always smiled — to change.

Only she didn't.

Despite the pain, constant sickness, the seemingly never-ending MRIs, fear and uncertainty, Kelsey continued being the girl who never stopped smiling, no matter what.

So when mom crossed the finish line, Kelsey was smiling.

“I don't think she understood how much she influenced me,” April said. “Every time I would get tired or think I couldn't do it, I would think of her, every week, getting stuck with needles and so on. I would think, ‘Wow, if she can go through that and still come out smiling, I have to be just as strong as her.' ”

Kelsey's chemo is scheduled to end in August.

The future is uncertain.

If the tumor starts affecting the optic nerves again, she will need more chemo. Doctors told April that there is a 66 percent chance that will happen.

She won't be able to drive. Reading will be a challenge. Kelsey plays soccer but struggles to follow the ball. In dance class, she stands a little bit closer to the teacher than other students.

But running? That she can do.

And that's what she did Saturday. Kelsey Hanahan lined up at the starting line in the North Side, waited for the starting gunshot, then took off with thousands of other children at the Pittsburgh Kids Marathon. Fourteen minutes later, she crossed the finish line Downtown, pigtails flying and a huge grin framing her face.

And with her dad cheering from the sidelines, the first person to hug her, to tell her how proud she is, was her mom.

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