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Hope, medicine and friends on girl's team

(ran PC edition)

The spunky little cheerleader smiles from a photo, her blue and white pompoms by her side.

The picture was taken last year, before the brain tumor.

Today, 7-year-old Taylor Dumke lies surrounded by stuffed animals at home in a hospital-style bed with pink sheets. A shiny silver walker sits near the door. Her hair, once long and thick and brown, is gone, a casualty of chemotherapy.

But the spunk is still there.

"I'm still getting a (soccer) jersey," said the second-grader, who cheered and played soccer before the cancerous tumor made her muscles turn traitor. She smiles and talks about how she loves hot dogs and chocolate honey-dipped Dunkin' Donuts.

"All I want is junk food," she says.

Her mother, Nicole Dumke, is happy to let her enjoy it.

"We just want to get some calories in her."

Before the tumor, 38-year-old Nicole Dumke's life was a whirlwind of soccer practices, PTA meetings, Scouts and Bible camp.

One day, she noticed a child with cerebral palsy. She wondered about what life was like for that girl's mother.

Three weeks later, she found out. In the emergency room of University Community Hospital.

Taylor had been complaining of headaches and neck pain, but the pediatrician's tests had come up normal.

One Saturday morning in July, Taylor woke up and nearly collapsed. Her speech started to slur. Nicole called the doctor's office. Get her to a hospital, the nurse said.

Less than two hours later, Nicole and her husband, Paul, were hearing what sounded surreal: Their daughter had a brain tumor.

They listened to options. They started second-guessing themselves.

Should they move her to another hospital? Was there a better surgeon somewhere else?

They knew their daughter's life was in capable hands after talking with neurosurgeon Ralph Rydell, who has practiced more than 30 years.

"This is one time you don't get a second chance," Nicole said.

The tumor Rydell removed was bigger than a golf ball.

It's known as medulloblastoma, the most common tumor that arises in childhood, Rydell said.

It grows in the back part of the brain, a part that is responsible for balance and coordination.

Sometimes surgeons are able to remove all of such tumors. Sometimes they can't. That's why radiation and chemotherapy are critical.

Rydell is fairly certain he got all of Taylor's tumor, but she still has to take chemotherapy to make sure it will not grow back. She is learning to walk again. A teacher visits the house each day, though Taylor looks forward to joining her classmates at Wesley Chapel Elementary School.

Her mother's life is still a whirlwind, but now it's doctor's appointments. She tries to keep life as normal as possible for her other two children, Chad, 9, and Alexa, 3.

Nicole has been touched by the support that has come from friends and even strangers, thanks to prayer groups and the Internet.

Taylor has received postcards from as far away as Haiti.

The Wesley Chapel Athletic Association offered to help the family financially. But Nicole, whose family lives in Saddlebrook Resort and has good health insurance, felt bad accepting it when so many families lack access to health care.

So tonight the organization is sponsoring the Badge Bowl, a flag football game pitting Tampa police against Tampa firefighters.

Proceeds will go to children's charities, though the Dumkes can tap the fund if the need should ever arise.

Meanwhile, Taylor watches from her wheelchair as her friends cheer and kick the soccer ball.

The other mothers needn't feel pity for Nicole. She has too much to be thankful for.

"I can't be a boo-hoo," she said. "We have a wonderful family. We have three beautiful children. We have hope."

_ Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times. You can reach her at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buiesptimes.com.

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