When McKenzie Eckman's family brought her to Barton Memorial Hospital Jan. 18, they thought the diagnosis would be the flu or another common ailment.
They didn't expect the doctor to tell them that their 3-year-old had acute lymphocytic leukemia, and would need nine months of intensive chemotherapy to survive.
"I couldn't believe it. It's the one time you want your doctor to be wrong. The word 'leukemia' is like a death sentence. It's like saying your little 3-year-old - who's full of spit and vinegar and is active all the time --is going to die," McKenzie's grandfather and 37-year South Lake Tahoe resident Tom Incopero said.
The type of leukemia that affected McKenzie attacks lymphoid cells - or cells that produce immunity - and grows quickly, according to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that out of the 6,050 people who will be diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia annually, about 60 percent of them will be younger than than 20 years old.
Since acute leukemia shares many symptoms with the flu, including aches, fevers, swollen glands and pains, it's easy to overlook the disease. So when McKenzie weakened and turned pale about two weeks ago, her family didn't think cancer was the culprit, Incopero said. After all, she'd been tap dancing on the stage at Harrah's Lake Tahoe in December.
"Two weeks ago, that little girl was outside playing. She got real weak and pale, but no way did we think leukemia was the cause of it. She's going to lose all her hair - her long, beautiful, curly hair," Incopero said.
The doctors at Barton told the family that they would need to drive McKenzie to the UC Davis Cancer Center - the closest facility to the South Shore that offers chemotherapy for children - weekly for almost a year for her injected chemotherapy. After that, she will continue taking a pill to fight the disease for the next two years.
The doctors didn't have an answer as to why the disease suddenly became active, Incopero said.
Incopero estimates that even with insurance the medical costs will hover around $600,000. McKenzie's parents, Misty Incopero and Tim Eckman, have both reduced their work schedules at Meek's in order to drive their daughter to and from Davis, Calif., four times per month.
To help them cover the expenses, employees at Meek's have organized a March fundraiser at the American Legion building in South Lake Tahoe. They've already received an outpouring of support from the community in the form of donations, Meek's window and contractor sales Brian Jeffery said.
"Meek's is a family-owned corporation. We're a family here, we spend a lot of time together and we're going to do everything we can to help," Jeffery said.
More than a dozen South Shore businesses have donated prizes for the silent auction that will take place in March. The event will also include live music and appetizers.
Incopero started the McKenzie Rose Eckman Cancer Relief Fund at the El Dorado County Savings Bank where he said people can deposit donations. So far the family has raised about $1,400, Incopero said.
McKenzie went outside Tuesday for the first time in almost two weeks, according to a post Eckman wrote on kenziescrusade.blogspot.com. The number of leukemia cells in her body is down to 6 percent and doctors have given her a 90 percent survival rate. But she's still not in the clear and the chemotherapy leaves McKenzie feeling weak and sick, her father wrote.
"I know my daughter --my 3-year-old champion --is the strongest rock in the universe. Her atoms are arranged so densely that it's able to form her shape. And she is by far the most precious gem this world has ever seen," Eckman wrote Tuesday.