On Thursday, Whitney Kerr gathered with his extended family on a farm an hour and a half east of Kansas City for their traditional Thanksgiving celebration.
His daughter Charlotte was there, up from Dallas, where the 2007 SM East graduate now works as a buyer at Neiman Marcus. Starting a career in the fashion industry was one of Charlotte’s dreams. She majored in fashion design at Washington University in St. Louis.
But there was a time when her father had to confront a very real scenario that the simple, joyful act of seeing his daughter at Thanksgiving wouldn’t be a possibility. There was a time when Whitney and the entire Kerr family had to reckon with the fact that Charlotte might die.
That’s the reality presented in Kerr’s new self-published book, “Flashing Bugs,” which tells the story of Charlotte’s triumph over an extraordinarily rare form of cancer when she was 4 years old.
“She got sick over a weekend,” Whitney said. “At first they thought it was appendicitis. But it got worse and worse. We knew something serious was happening.”
The cancer, called pancreatoblastoma, is so rare that Charlotte’s doctors at Children’s Mercy had to scour the literature to find case histories to inform their treatment plan. They found write ups about a case in Japan. And one in France. But that was about it.
“You’re never prepared for something like this as a parent,” he said. “At that point I honestly don’t think I even knew that children got cancer. It was an eye opener.”
At the same time Charlotte was undergoing treatment, the Kansas City area and Kerr’s industry were having a rough time as well. Floods were devastating towns all along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. And Kerr, then a fledgling real estate broker, was trying to cut his teeth in an industry that was feeling the effects of the savings and loan crisis.
To deal with the anxiety and stress of the situation, Kerr began keeping a journal.
“It was just a way to keep my sanity,” he said. “It gave me a way to put everything in perspective and to take a step back and reflect.”
After a surgery and radiation therapy, tests showed Charlotte was cancer free about a year after her diagnosis. With the threat to Charlotte’s life gone, Kerr stopped journaling. But he kept the writings thinking that he may be able to turn them into a book that could serve as an inspiration to families facing similar situations.
A couple of years ago, he got serious about writing, and finished the book off earlier this year.
“The title, Flashing Bugs (Lightning bugs) is a metaphor about the beauty and brevity of childhood,” Kerr said. “Compared to the history of the universe – a typical childhood isn’t even a millisecond and that carries a double message – don’t miss it as a parent and don’t waste it as a young adult. Cancer survivors like Charlotte have an extra motivation to lead productive lives. They got a second chance at life when many of their fellow patients didn’t.”
Flashing Bugs is available at Bruce Smith Drugs in Prairie Village.