Beating the odds: Howell persevered through stage four cancer, now a Valley High graduate

Published 2:00 pm Monday, May 27, 2019

VALLEY — Recent Valley High School graduate Beyoncé Howell is like most 18-year-olds — she loves music and in her free time she indulges in eating and sleeping.

Being like every other 18-year-old is all Howell ever wanted because she’s got a story most people her age haven’t experienced. At 9 months old, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer — neuroblastoma — and she was given 24 hours to live.

“They told my mom 24 hours, but I lived up to five years, and then I grew up,” Howell said.

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Last week, she walked across the stage and received her high school diploma alongside the rest of her classmates at Valley High School. She is currently preparing to take care of her core classes at Southern Union State Community College in the fall. Eventually, she plans to transfer to Tuskegee University to begin working toward a degree in nursing.

“I didn’t like talking about it,” Howell said. “I kind of pushed it off. I didn’t want people to ask me. People who are best friends with my mom would be like ‘oh, this is the baby that had cancer,’ and I’d just be quiet. I was embarrassed. I just didn’t like people bringing it up, but now that it’s out, I can talk freely about it. I can say ‘yes, I had cancer when I was a child. Yes, I survived it.’”

Howell was diagnosed on her mother’s birthday, Sept. 12, 2001. The doctors told her mother, Tracy Brooks, that Howell only had one day to live.

“You hear about cancer, but you never think that this baby, as small as she was, has cancer,” Brooks said. “You see it on television, but me personally, I never would’ve thought it.”

Howell, then an infant, was running a fever and both of the palms of her hands and the bottoms of her feet turned yellow when she was sent to the emergency room on Sept. 9. The doctors ran X-rays and noticed that she had a large mass on the side of her stomach. She was then ordered to see her pediatrician, Dr. Tonya Lyles, in Valley the next morning.

Brooks took the X-ray images to Lyles’ office on Sept. 10, and she ordered the infant back to the hospital to administer a blood pressure check on her arm because Howell’s blood pressure at the time was 140/180. Lyles then suggested that Brooks send Howell to St. Jude’s in Memphis, Tennessee.

Brooks told her she’d be unable to take the five-and-a-half hour trip because her mother was in the ICU at the time, and she was also taking care of two other kids. Lyles took a moment to look up other options, and Children’s Hospital in Birmingham popped up. Howell was taken to the hospital immediately.

Upon arrival, Brooks said that more than 20 doctors were waiting for Howell.

“Once the doctors took her upstairs, put her in a room and started hooking her up to all types of different machines, they just asked me to stand back,” Brooks said, before throwing her arms up and giving a confused gaze during the recollection. “I’m just standing there looking like ‘what am I supposed to do? What can I do?’”

The doctors ran multiple tests on Howell while checking her blood pressure, as she was at risk of having a stroke. On Sept. 11, the doctors were unable to deliver the materials from the tests to Massachusetts because of the day’s terrorist attacks.

“I was really feeling like a lost person,” Brooks said. “Sitting there, looking at the television, with everything going on, waiting and hoping to hear that ‘even though we cut her, we went ahead and took it [stomach mass] out,’ but that wasn’t the answer that I got.”

The doctors then decided to run emergency radiation. On Sept. 12, the immediate family was called in from the waiting room and told that Howell was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancerous tumor that affects children. The infant was given 24 hours to live because the doctors couldn’t get her blood pressure to come down. The staff was also unsure of how to treat the tumor because it “was so aggressive,” Brooks said.

The tumor started growing ligaments that attached to her kidneys, liver and another organ. The doctors only hope at the time was to continue giving Howell radiation in order for the tumor to stop growing.

Only one thing kept Brooks’ sanity during the week.

“Prayer,” she said. “I prayed and prayed.”

Eventually, her blood pressure did come down, and Howell was discharged from the Birmingham hospital.

Howell was taken to Birmingham on a weekly basis for three-day chemotherapy sessions for 48 weeks. She continued receiving treatments until she was 5-years-old. In 2006, a photo of Howell and a passage of her survival testimony ran in The Valley Times-News.

“[As time went on], we got more out of the woods of it to the point where she could move more and get involved with stuff more,” Brooks said. “It kind of faded out on me a little bit to where I felt like I didn’t have to worry about it too much anymore. I’m saying in my head that she’s actually healed from everything.”

Howell then began to participate in local sports and activities including kickball, soccer, taekwondo, track, band and cheerleading.

Howell never fully understood the frequent trips to Birmingham for check-ups until she grew old enough to read and research cancer for herself. She began telling her friends about her childhood diagnosis in seventh grade when cancer was brought up in a science class. Howell jokes around with her friends now when they tell her that they forget that she had cancer.

On the night of graduation, Howell’s sister Eria Brooks posted a picture on Facebook of Howell in her cap and gown while holding a sign that read “Stage 4 Cancer Survivor!!!” As of Monday afternoon, the post has over 4,500 likes and 3,000 shares. People throughout the country have reached out to Howell to congratulate her and share their stories with cancer as well.

One girl messaged Howell about her radiation treatments, and how her cancer returned when she thought she was going to be in remission.

“I told her that you have to speak it into existence,” Howell said.

“You have to think that you’re going into full remission. Don’t let that stop you, you can’t let that stop you. Live your life to the fullest, live every day like it’s your last. That’s all you can do. You can put it all in God’s hands because there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The viral post has now made Howell an individual who people look up to as an inspiration.

“As a person, you don’t think that you’re a role model to somebody,” Howell said. “This entire situation getting attention for it feels weird, but I’m an inspiration, and I have aspirations.”

The 18-year-old still has the tumor, but it’s not active. Howell’s annual check-up in Birmingham is this Thursday. She said that her fear is that her cancer is going to return one day, and she wouldn’t know what to do.

“So, I’m just living,” she said.

Howell grew up very close to her grandfather, who also had cancer. He survived prostate cancer before being diagnosed with lung cancer, which ultimately led to his death in 2017. Howell’s grandfather took care of Brooks’ other children when the mother was with Howell in Birmingham. Since Brooks wasn’t able to work at the time of Howell’s treatments, she lived with the grandfather as well.

“That was devastating,” Brooks said. “He was my rock.”

Outside of losing her grandfather, Howell said she enjoyed her high school experience and that she’s looking forward to getting to see the world these next few years. Wherever she ends up, she plans to remain close to her mother.

Howell admits there were many tough days, but based off of her background, she could never give up.

“That gave me motivation because I did want to become a nurse practitioner for regular people, but now I want to be one in Children’s Hospital with kids that have sicknesses like what I had. That’s my motivation to keep going.”