Volleyball: Kelsea Klingenberg, Bella Clevenger put a face to Princeton’s St. Jude Night

PHS players are childhood cancer survivors

Princeton freshman Bella Clevinger (left) and junior Kelsea Klingenberg are both cancer survivors. Clevinger developed leukemia at age 3, Klingenberg had melanoma at 12.

Volleyball players and coaches participate in cancer awareness events throughout the month of October.

They all know the events, like the “Volley for a Cure” Princeton is hosting during its tournament Saturday to benefit St. Jude’s Children Hospital, are important and meaningful.

But none quite know the meaning behind them more than Princeton junior Kelsea Klingenberg and freshman Bella Clevenger.

It’s personal to them.

Both are cancer survivors at such a young age.

The way they play volleyball, one would never know.

Bella’s story

Clevenger is a vibrant libero for the freshmen volleyball team and will be playing soccer this spring. She has come a long way when she needed a wheelchair or the little red wagon and her stuffed animals just to get around.

“There are times she’ll run super fast, dive or make a super play, it makes me cry because we never thought it would happen,” said her mother, Kady Dever.

On Aug. 25, 2011, Clevenger was diagnosed with ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), a cancer the family knew too well after the 1976 loss of Bella’s great uncle to ALL, and the 2001 loss of Bella’s great-grandfather to CML (Chronic Myeloid Leukemia).

Leukemia is genetic, but not hereditary.

Dever said it was a life-stopping moment.

“Anything and everything that’s important no longer is. Everybody says, ‘You’re so strong. I don’t know how you do it.’ You just go to autopilot,” Dever said.

After not responding to initial treatment as expected, Bella was placed into a trial treatment program that her parents were told was going to be intense, but nothing could have prepared them for what the next two years would entail.

Bella Clevenger and her favorite stuffed animals in her little red wagon while undergoing treatment for leukemia.

The new treatment plan included daily regimens of oral and IV chemotherapy as well as constant high dose steroids, platelet transfusions, various pain management methods and weekly spinal taps. Clevenger continued to hit unexpected bumps in the road, including blood infections, complications with her port-a-caths which lead to multiple surgeries, uncontrollable fevers, loss of her ability to walk due to necrosis in her ankles and other small setbacks which ultimately caused her to miss her targeted remission dates, twice.

On Dec. 12, 2013, a day before her fifth birthday, Clevenger took her last dose of chemo. After 841 days of treatment, Bella was in remission and was able put her daily medicinal routes behind her.

Over the years, the two-week check-ups started to space out to monthly, quarterly, every six months, and now, yearly, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“With leukemia, they’re never cured. So she’ll have it for the rest of her life. She’ll always be considered remission because of the amount of cells that are left in the body. So it’s scary, that we know it will never be gone,” Dever said.

“With each year that passes, the likelihood of relapse comes further and further apart. That chance never goes away. It’s always in the 20-30% it can come back. The reality of secondary cancer is much more likely she’ll get cancer again, just a different kind.”

“It’s scary to think about. I really feel like it won’t happen. There is a chance, but I try not to think about it,” Clevenger said.

Clevenger said it’s probably better for her to have had it a younger age than now.

“I’m sure if I would have had it now, it would have been way different. I’m older and would have been in school and sports and socializing. I feel like that would have affected my life more now,” she said. “(But) it was probably more dangerous when I was little,”

Thanks to the continued support of St. Jude, Clevenger continues to thrive, accomplish things she was told may not be possible and even has been inspired her to make the decision to pursue the healthcare industry after high school with the goal of being a pediatrician so she can insure that children get the best healthcare possible.

Kelsea’s story

Klingenberg is a energetic back row player in volleyball and a highly successful slap hitter in softball with an eye on continuing that sport in college.

Her life came to a screeching halt when she learned she had melanoma at age 12.

“It was really crazy. I remember the ride home with my mom when she got the call. She was really freaking out. She didn’t want to tell me,” Klingenberg said.

“I didn’t know what skin cancer was. I just thought skin cancer was something you just got from the sun. Easily removable. But mine was pretty big. It was scary.”

Klingenberg developed a birthmark when she was around 18 months old, which continued to grow as she aged. Over time it developed darker spots. Doctors told them that was normal.

“We did have a dermatologist test it, the results were normal,” Klingenberg’s mother, Elizabeth said.

Klingenberg became sensitive to her birthmark as she entered her pre-teen years. They found a dermatologist/plastics team, which agreed to remove the birthmark.

Prior to any surgery they wanted to test the area. Two weeks later, they received the most unimaginable diagnosis. Klingenberg, at 12, had melanoma.

Their dermatologist helped them make a connection at St. Jude in Peoria. She went through more testing and surgery was planned as soon as possible. On Sept. 16, 2019, Klingenberg had surgery to remove 10-inch by 2.5-inch patch of skin from her right hip. One year later she had another spot appear and a quarter size amount of skin was removed.

Princeton’s Kelsea Klingenberg pops up a bunt against Rock Falls Thursday, March 23, 2023.

The treatment of childhood melanoma is often delayed due to misdiagnosis of pigmented lesions, which occurs up to 40 percent of the time, Elizabeth Klingenberg said. When melanoma is found and treated early, it is highly curable with a five-year survival rate of more than 90%.

Klingenberg will undergo skin and eye checks for melanoma for the rest of her life. Thanks to St. Jude and their incredible team, Elizabeth Klingenberg said, Klingenberg is healthy, in her junior year and planning her future. She plans to study Kinesiology while playing softball and before transferring to Palmer Chiropractic to finish her doctorate.

Playing for St. Jude

Both girls and their families are excited to have an event for St. Jude, which has meant so much to them.

“I think once you get a face and someone you know or someone in your school or someone on your team went through that, it opens a lot more eyes to wow, ‘It could be my kid. It could be my teammate,’” Dever said. “The support is really more dramatic and able to benefit St. Jude and other children’s hospitals.”

“It’s really important. Skin cancer isn’t known about enough. The sun is really dangerous and sun screen is really important,” Klingenberg said.

The night is also personal for PHS coach Andy Puck, whose cousin, Eric Hall, has stage 4 pancreatic cancer and was told to get all of his affairs in order.

“It’s been a battle. He’s fought and fought and fought, but just recently things are starting to look a lot more positive,” Puck said, noting his cousin sought Eastern medicine and change of diet with a lot of exercising. “He’s in our thoughts always. I told him Saturday I’ll be wearing prostrate cancer colors for him and he was very honored.”

Puck’s wife, Gina, ran a marathon recently with Hall’s bib on and a note saying, “This is for Eric.”

All proceeds from Saturday’s tournament, including silent auction, 50-50 raffle and T-shirt sales, will benefit St. Jude’s. To contribute, contact Elizabeth Klingenberg at 815-878-3353.

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