Kierra Wiggins said her son, Karson Elijah Smith, was always smiling. She said he loved to be held, play, and listen to music – especially his grandfather playing the harmonica. He loved his dog, Peanut, and his favorite foods were bread and pizza.
Like other babies his age, Karson learned how to wave bye-bye. He learned how to crawl and then take his first steps.
Unlike his peers, Karson reached those significant milestones while battling Rhabdomyosarcoma, cancer of the soft tissue. He was diagnosed at just four months old after a tumor was found on his small intestine.
“The doctors said [this type of cancer] was most common in boys,” Wiggins said. “We noticed the tumor during a diaper change.”
Wiggins said she took Karson to the doctor, and they found the softball-sized tumor.
“It was stage four when we found it,” Wiggins said.
Karson began chemotherapy at St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and at first, the treatment was effective, shrinking the tumor down to the size of a walnut, Wiggins said.
However, the chemo treatment soon became ineffective, and doctors began radiation treatment.
“The cancer had spread to the bone, and then all over,” Wiggins said. “It spread to his brain, his eye, his jaw, gums. He wouldn’t even cry. Eventually, once the tumor spread to his eye he was diagnosed with leukemia.”
On October 10, 2017, a few weeks shy of his first birthday, Karson succumbed to his illness, leaving his doting family heartbroken over the loss of their beloved boy.
Wiggins said she relied on her faith and her family as she traversed Karson’s diagnosis, treatment, and passing.
“Praying is the main thing,” Wiggins said. “Love your kids, be there for them. Pray for them, pray with them.”
And Wiggins was never alone. Part of a tight-knit family, she leaned on her parents, Cynthia and Arthur Forrest, and sister, Miefsha Wiggins, and her family at Columbiana United Methodist Church for support.
“My mom [Cynthia Forrest] was there the entire time,” Wiggins said. “She never left our side.”
Forrest said she left her job to be there for her daughter and grandson.
“You have to have a good support system,” Forrest said.
In addition to a successful benefit being held in Karson’s honor at Columbiana, the community followed Karson’s story on social media – sending prayers and well wishes to the family.
“People would come up to [Kierra] and tell her they admired her for what she has been through,” Forrest said.
Wiggins continued, “Some say ‘I don’t think I could do it.’ I didn’t think I could do it either.”
Wiggins said as a way to honor Karson’s memory, she wants to do something to help other families with children battling cancer.
“My sister, Miefsha Wiggins, is working on getting a foundation started,” Wiggins said. “Elijah’s Way... to support families going through childhood cancer.”
Wiggins also said she and her family will always support St. Jude and its partners who assist the many patients and their families. She said they participate in the Childhood Cancer Walk, the first time in honor of Karson and now in his memory.
While at St. Jude, Wiggins and her family were comforted by the doctors, nurses, and staff who cared for Karson. She said many still keep in touch with the family today.
While staying at the Ronald McDonald House near the hospital, Karson was entertained with magic shows and even a meet and greet with Superman. The activities were a welcomed relief from every other day spent receiving some sort of treatment at the hospital.
“Ronald McDonald had a Superhero Day,” Wiggins remembered. “We got shirts made with ‘Super Karson’ on them.”
Looking back, Wiggins said she sees how smart and strong Karson was as he was battling the disease.
“[The doctors] told us he didn’t have long, but he lasted six months.”
Forrest agreed, “He was stronger than any of us.”
Wiggins said it took her some time to be able to tell Karson's story without becoming emotional. However, that taught her a valuable lesson.
“You never know who is going through what,” Wiggins said.
According to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 175,000 children 14 and under are diagnosed with cancer each year. In fact, it is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for U.S. children. However, thanks to medical advancement, more than 80 percent of childhood cancer patients are long-term survivors, with around 420,000 childhood cancer survivors living in the United States.