Spring 2011

Cancer took Karina Robertson, but not her family's desire to help science

Team Karina
By Ignacio Lobos

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Karina Robertson fought leukemia three different times. At age 14, one day after graduating from middle school in June 2005, her doctors said she was suffering from acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer more commonly found in adults.

The family first thought it might be something simpler, a cold maybe, at worst mononucleosis. The full impact of the diagnosis came shortly thereafter, when Karina was struck by pneumonia during her fourth round of chemotherapy, white blood cell counts nearly at zero, and doctors preparing the family for the worst.

Karina pulled through, but a year later, the leukemia was back. This time, doctors found a close ally at hand—her sister, Annika, who donated her stem cells for a transplant to fight the disease.

And they did, for three years, until the leukemia returned, with another powerful bout of pneumonia just behind. This time, at 19, Karina could not fight it off. These are the cold facts surrounding Karina’s five-year battle against cancer. And yet, it’s not what the family wants you to remember most about Karina’s story, nestled among stories of survivorship in this issue of Quest.

"She was a survivor"

“Karina got to graduate from high school, and she was doing well in college. She got to do a lot,” her mom, Katie, said. “She was a survivor—I’ll take that over a death sentence at age 14.”

The Robertson family
Ron, Annika, Katie, Erik, and at lower right, Karina Robertson.
Karina’s parents know that blood cancers—all cancers—are complicated. And while we appear to have gained an edge on some of these cancers, much remains to be done.

“Yes, I wish my daughter had survived,” said her father, Ron. “It’s so frustrating to know that there were other things we could have done against her leukemia if the pneumonia had not taken hold. I believe it’s God’s desire that we find answers to disease.”

Some of those answers, they said, gave their daughter five extra years of life, three of them with no complications. “As a parent, you never think your daughter is going to die,” Katie said. “The pain of losing her is indescribable, and we don’t want others to go through so much anguish.”

That’s why they share her story—because Karina’s experience reinforced in them the importance of science and research, even though it could not do enough for her.
Karina didn’t shy away from her experience. Sure, leukemia transformed her and her entire family—it challenged all of them to the core, but never broke them. Karina and her siblings, Annika and Erik, became much closer. The sisters came to describe themselves as “one mind, one marrow.”

Karina inspires family and friends to help

Two years ago, Karina took the family on a quest to help science by participating in the Seattle Half Marathon, where she raised money for the Hutchinson Center. Their efforts didn’t stop there; Karina became an outstanding spokeswoman for the Center’s research. And because of Karina’s long struggle
against the disease, the family met many Center researchers and physicians along the way. Karina in particular was touched by their devotion to their work and desire to make her better.

“Before all of this, we had never heard scientists speak. And you can tell that they’re so dedicated to what they’re doing,” Katie said. Karina died a year ago in April, but that has not tempered the Robertsons’ desire to help. In November, Annika brought 160 family and friends together at the Seattle Half Marathon to honor her sister and again raise money for research.

“Karina would not want us to stand on the sidelines. She wanted all of us to contribute to a solution, and that means helping others find answers so people like her don’t die from cancer,” Ron said.

And the Robertsons don’t want people to forget their daughter. “She was a gorgeous, funny, brilliant girl. She truly lived a life of faith, love and joy,” Katie said. “Her strength and dedication inspired so many people.”

Last December, the Robertsons sent a Christmas card and letter to their friends and family. “The picture on this card is our last family photo taken. I figured I could send one more photo of us all,” Katie’s letter said, before continuing: “In her five-year battle with cancer, Karina taught us the true meaning of courage, perseverance and faith. She never complained; she was never afraid of her treatments or of death; she was headstrong, never quitting when her earthly future looked dismal; and she trusted God with her life, never questioning his plan for her.

“I know Karina didn’t want to die just yet, but she knew where she was going with a fervent faith.”

This is the Karina they want you to know.


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