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Battling a rare cancer will change this Cedar Rapids 8-year-old's life

19 Linn County deputies, including her father, offered their support with a special surprise

Gracelyn Springer drives her new toy car, gifted by a family friend, at their Cedar Rapids home on Thursday, Dec. 3, 202
Gracelyn Springer drives her new toy car, gifted by a family friend, at their Cedar Rapids home on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Gracelyn had a craniotomy and was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in November, and begins chemotherapy next week. Her father, Linn County sheriff's deputy Marty Tope, and his SRT members shaved their heads in support of her and held a parade Nov. 30. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When 8-year-old Gracie Springer cruises down the sidewalk in her electric vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz with the radio cranked, she looks like any other kid her age.

The second-grader, bundled up in jacket of her favorite color — purple — with matching pompom stocking beanie, is a little wobbly at the wheel, but not bad for a first-time driver. She goes as fast as possible — 3.6 mph. Attempting a sharp turn at the top of a hill, she gets stuck but doesn’t even think about asking mom for help.

Her mother, Kelsey Springer, 27, of Cedar Rapids, described her as “sassy, stubborn and spirited.” But as quickly as she said it, she added that’s what she fears most will change about Gracie after Monday.

“I’m going to miss that,” Springer said Thursday as she stood outside her house watching Gracie tear up the hill. “We’ve let her play as much as possible because everything will change.”

Gracie’s fight

Gracie starts chemotherapy Monday. She was diagnosed last month with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that most typically is found in children and young adults. She has a large tumor attached to her mastoid bone — just behind the ear — and it grew into her brain.

Springer said her daughter started having headaches off and on, along with stomachaches, in October. But they started occurring more frequently and grew more severe. She and her partner, Marty Tope, 31, Gracie’s father, wasn’t sure what was going on but never even thought about cancer.

Gracie then had a severe headache and couldn’t stop vomiting on Nov. 14. Springer took her to Mercy Medical Center and a CT scan showed a mass on her brain. She quickly was transferred to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, where she had an MRI that identified the mass and showed brain swelling.

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On Nov. 16, Gracie had a craniotomy to relieve pressure on the brain and surgeons were able to remove most of the tumor. The doctors said, though, there could still be some cancer cells.

Springer said this surgery was traumatic for Gracie because of her age and because she had to shave her head. Gracie had long brown hair with “beautiful body,” her mother added. Springer cut Gracie’s locks and Tope shaved her head.

“She had a panic attack, so Marty shaved his head to support her,” Springer said.

Tope, a Linn County sheriff’s deputy, then tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn’t be with her at the hospital.

Not being able to go into the hospital was difficult for Tope.

“I was texting and calling and then worried when I couldn’t reach (Kelsey),” Tope said. “Kelsey was sleeping at the hospital with Gracie. My body would just wake me up after the surgery. I couldn’t sleep. It was hard.”

Diagnosis confirmed

The parents learned Gracie had Ewing’s sarcoma before Thanksgiving, on Nov. 20. The doctor told them only about 1 percent of all childhood cancers are Ewing tumors, and only 1 percent of those attach to the head or neck area.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 200 children and teens are diagnosed with Ewing tumors each year in the United States.

“I can’t even describe how we felt,” Springer said. “It’s been hard.”

Gracie will have to have an estimated 28 to 30 weeks of chemo, and radiation therapy will be added at some point.

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What’s ahead

Tope said they waited a few days to tell Gracie. “She doesn’t understand everything,” he said.

Springer said Gracie knows she has cancer but feels good now. She doesn’t know the side effects of chemo and how sick she will become. She knows it’s a long road ahead, and has anxiety about what will happen.

Gracie has been watching a Netflix series about cancer, and she has been asking questions about death, which Springer said has been disturbing for her.

Support from friends

“I couldn’t have imagined her being this healthy (after last month’s surgery),” Tope said as he watched Gracie this week drive down the sidewalk. “She’s always like this. She loves music and to dance. She loves to watch those baking shows and make things out of Play-Doh. Play doctor and ride her bike. She just learned last summer.”

Springer said Gracie wanted an electric car for a long time and specifically asked for a two-seater so she could take her 15-month-old brother, Jackson, for rides. It’s her favorite thing to do now.

Springer’s former boss, Ryan Evans, gave Gracie the car about a week ago. He found out about the cancer and wanted to give her something she always wanted.

Earlier this week, Springer said the family was waiting on bone marrow test results to determine if the cancer had spread. On Thursday she told Trope the test came back negative. Both felt relieved.

They said the only way they were getting through this was with help from family, friends and co-workers.

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The sheriff’s Special Response Team, which Tope is on, surprised Gracie on Monday with a lights-and-sirens parade of 10 or more squad vehicles and leading the way was the Bearcat — an armored tactical response vehicle used for in an active shooter situation.

Team members also wanted to show her their shaved heads.

Sgt. John Hauskins, assigned to the 19-member team and Tope’s immediate supervisor, said he wanted to do something just for Gracie to show she is part of the department’s “family.”

“So, I thought why don’t we shave our heads?” Hauskins said. “We can show her it’s a good look. We can all pull it off. I think she liked it.”

When Trims Barber in Marion heard about what deputies wanted to do, the owner shaved their heads for free, Hauskins said.

Hauskins, who also grew up with Tope, said Gracie’s reaction to the parade was “just like Christmas. Her face lit up,” he said.

Springer said Gracie initially was stunned when she came out and saw the guys. She was a little shy and nervous because they were “a bunch of boys” but she got excited when they let her get in the Bearcat with her dad and stand up through the roof opening, Springer said.

Gracie’s principal and teachers at Nixon Elementary School and her classmates also have been supportive. Springer said it’s been an isolating time for Gracie, first with the coronavirus and now because she has to limit her contact with people and won’t have daily contact with her teachers and friends.

Her class sent her get-well cards, which meant so much, Springer said.

Tope’s sister also set up a GoFundMe page to help the family and update everyone on Gracie’s progress.

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Springer knows this will be lifelong battle for Gracie but she has faith that little girl will beat it.

Tope said he is taking one day at a time.

“I’m not looking ahead,” he said. “I just want to make the most of each day.”

Gracie already set five goals for after chemo and radiation: Go to a Kansas City Chiefs game and Disney World, get her ears pierced, take gymnastics and see her parents marry.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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