Aneliese Kay may be young, but the gorgeous Waikato teen has some wise words for other girls. "Don't waste time worrying about the small stuff, have fun and always look on the positive side of life. Oh, and eat more Burger Rings," says the cheeky teenager with her trademark grin.
Lovely Aneliese has packed a lot of living into her short life. She's travelled to Thailand with her family, braved a canyon swing more than 100 metres above a ravine in Queenstown and swum with dolphins in Kaikoura. A keen MasterChef fan, she's even fulfilled her dream of cooking alongside celebrity chef Josh Emett.
There's a lot more the lively teenager wants to do in life, but at just 14, she's tragically running out of time.
In 2015, Aneliese had a migraine-like headache all week and then woke with her eyes jerking from side to side. Doctors found a golf-ball sized tumour at the base of her skull and within 12 hours, she was in surgery at Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital.
"Until then, we thought cancer happened to other people's kids or people we didn't know in magazines," says Aneliese's mum Erika Kay, 39. She and husband Nick, 44, live in a bustling family home in Morrinsville with Aneliese and their three other kids, Louise, 19, Alyssa, 13, and Logan, 11.
Although Erika and Nick were thrown by the shock diagnosis, they decided to treat it a bit like a broken leg. "We made a decision to be positive and go with, 'She's broken – the doctors will fix it. She will be fine,'" recalls Erika.
And after nearly a year of radiation and chemotherapy, Aneliese appeared to be one of the lucky ones. Her regular check-ups were clear and everyone put the cancer behind them. "For a while at least, Aneliese was a normal teenager," tells Erika.
But on December 29 last year, the family had enjoyed an action-packed day at the Waimarino Adventure Park near Tauranga and that night, Aneliese complained her back was sore. "She'd been kayaking, jumping off bridges and going down the hydroslides – I thought she'd jarred it," admits Erika. "But within an hour of first saying she was in pain, Aneliese couldn't walk."
Doctors at Waikato Hospital discovered three new tumours that were strangling Aneliese's spinal cord, paralysing her from the waist down. The cancer – medulloblastoma, the most common high-grade childhood tumour – she'd been diagnosed with two years earlier often spreads to other parts of the brain or the spinal cord through the cerebrospinal fluid.
With surgery being far too risky, Aneliese began radiation to shrink the tumours and is still having chemotherapy in Starship for five days every month.
Although it's possible to get some movement back in her legs, Aneliese still can't stand on her own or walk. "We haven't given up, have we? It could still happen," encourages Erika, placing her own hand gently on her daughter's.
After her relapse, the teen drew up a list of things she wanted to do and is fund-raising on Givealittle to help with the costs. One of the first things was to drink a glass of Moët with her mother – tick. "Argh, it was awful – I managed one sip," she says with a giggle.
She's part-way through a white-and-rose-gold bedroom makeover, has a new pug puppy called Lollipop and has written a piece for The New Zealand Herald on living with cancer. And now she's ticked off seeing music idol Ed Sheeran with her family.
"It is what it is," says ever-stoic Aneliese with a shrug and a smile.
"Yes, it's hard being reliant on everyone, but it does have its up-sides," she concedes, as her big sister Louise hands her a tray of sushi.
"Thanks, Weasel," she says with a teasing smile.
Aneliese and her family don't use the word terminal, but the doctors do.
"I feel just fine," explains Aneliese. "And while I feel fine, I am getting on and doing all the specials things I have left on my life list."
Although Aneliese admits she gets bored being confined to a wheelchair and stuck largely at home, she has a tight posse of friends who visit and hopes to soon feel well enough to start correspondence school.
When she's asked if she's angry that cancer is stealing her life, the remarkable teen simply states, "No!"
Cancer has changed her, but in a good way, she says. Once she was a "wimp" who used to worry about everything from how her hair looked to how fast the family car was travelling. "Now I don't care what people think. If you don't like it – too bad."
Aneliese knows cancer may be cutting her life short, but it's also taught her about what's important – and that's creating memories and living life to the fullest. "I don't have much time and I don't want to waste it on sadness," she says. "I just want to do as much as I can with my family before my time is up."
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