Calli Calvert, 24, is a survivor who has triumphed over cancer four times in the past 12 years. She has fought hard, dug deep and relied on her faith to stay alive. Beneath it all, she’s a young woman just trying to live a normal life.
Calvert’s journey has been grueling since she was first diagnosed with neuroblastoma at age 12 when a cancerous tumor was found in her abdomen. She has relapsed several times, endured more than 45 weeks of chemotherapy and underwent three major surgeries while traveling throughout the country for treatments.
During that time, she also graduated from San Luis Obispo High School, volunteered countless community service hours doing things she loved, earned a degree from Cal Poly and married one of her best friends from high school.
Her dad, Frank Kalman, has walked his own journey during her fight to survive.
He has transformed his experience as a parent into a nonprofit that funds cancer research and has now written a booklet called “Steps to Hope” to help parents find the best possible care for their own children.
The booklet is a step-by-step guide to accessing medical care and offers practical resources and helpful tips. It is also laden with hope.
Kalman still remembers teetering at the edge of despair when he thought they had run out of treatment options for his daughter.
“I remember telling myself to put one foot in front of the other because that was the only way I would be able to make it outside,” Kalman said. “And then I felt the sun on my shoulders and face, and I decided that there had to be a way.”
Kalman, who lives in San Luis Obispo, said it took him years to find the best treatment alternatives and hopes that the booklet will ease some of the burden of other families struggling down the same path.
Kalman spent countless nights, days and months researching neuroblastoma. He attended conferences, called experts and begged for their help.
Neuroblastoma is a rare cancer of the nerve cells, outside of the brain. It is the most common among infants. When a child relapses, the survival rate drops into the single digits, Kalman said.
One day, he even found himself desperately waiting in the front yard of a local pediatrician, after Kalman had learned he was somewhat of an expert in pediatric cancer.
He then used all of the knowledge he gained to make sure his daughter was receiving medical care he could feel confident about — even if it meant flying 3,000 miles to New York.
“I am so thankful for my dad and all he has done because without him I wouldn’t be here,” said Calvert, who now lives in Atascadero with her husband. “He did all the research. I was just a kid who needed him to tell me where to go and what to do. I could trust 100 percent in the treatments he found.”
Calvert’s fight with cancer has no end in sight, but the family’s hope has never been stronger.
“She is never out of the woods,” Kalman said. The stark reality of the cancer is always present.
“Every kid we have known over the years fighting this cancer is gone,” he said.
“The most devastating thing in the whole process is when you lose hope — because then you are practically dead,” Kalman said. “If you search for options, you create hope.”
Calvert is in her third year of being cancer-free. She underwent radiation in July for a small spot detected by doctors but is so far healthy. She does a routine vaccine therapy to help thwart its return.
Kalman’s nonprofit, The Kids Cancer Research Foundation, is in its third year of raising money to fund researchers looking to find a nontoxic treatment for neuroblastoma.
“The foundation is not just about my daughter,” Kalman said. “It is about saving as many kids as we can.”
Calvert is proud of her father’s accomplishments.
“This pamphlet is going to be so helpful for parents,” she said. “I think it’s so important because so many lives have been lost because parents have not known what to do.”
Calvert tries not to think about the uncertainties of the future.
“I have had to disconnect from some of it,” she said. “When you get into a depression is when your health begins to falter. I have to be cognizant of that.”
“I don’t dwell on it until I have to,” Calvert said. “I am here by the grace of God, and I feel comfort in my life and what happens and how long I am going to be on this earth.”
When asked to describe his daughter, Kalman didn’t hesitate before responding.
“She’s a beautiful redhead with curly, wavy hair,” Kalman said. “She’s really intelligent and driven like hell. … She met a guy who makes her so happy and married him last year. She is the happiest I have ever seen her.”
Cancer, for now, isn’t mentioned.
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.