Rhyan Loos’ journey to becoming cancer-free was a team effort

With help from her parents, her doctors and her favorite basketball team, Rhyan Loos is healthier and happier than ever.

Rhyan Loos looks and acts like any other 10-year-old girl at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School in Columbia. She balances basketball, softball and dance class alongside schoolwork and social life.

It’s a lot for a fifth grader, but it’s nothing that Loos can’t handle. She’s had to handle much, much more.

Since Loos was five years old, she’s undergone chemotherapy, a stem cell harvest, radiation, surgeries, immunotherapy and a whole lot more. It’s an unimaginable battle for an adult, let alone a kindergartener, to go through.

But she hasn’t gone through it alone. Rhyan had her dad, former Missouri men’s basketball assistant coach and current assistant athletic director Brad Loos, her mom Jen Loos and her siblings Brady and Charli Loos,

Rhyan’s fight with neuroblastoma starting in 2015 and going into 2016 gave rise to the Rally For Rhyan game, an annual Missouri men’s basketball game to benefit the Rally For Rhyan Fund.

“I really prioritized winning that game, regardless of our record every year,” former Missouri guard Kevin Puryear said. “That was always my favorite game of the year.”

Rhyan’s battle with cancer became even more widely known with the success of the first game in 2016. The Tigers are 5-0 in Rally For Rhyan games, which are always sprinkled with extra emotion and heroics, and the fund that bears her name has raised over half a million dollars toward helping other pediatric cancer patients.

Above all else, Rhyan has been cancer-free for four years.

“After watching her go through what she went through proud doesn't even begin to explain,” Brad said. “There's no way I could have done what she did. Her mental toughness and physical toughness is beyond compare.”

Five-year-old Rhyan’s outgoing personality and independence primed her for immediate success in elementary school.

But around the time she started going to school, a lot changed.

“A couple weeks before school started, we noticed a little limp and it would kind of come and go,” Brad said. “We didn't really think much of it.”

Rhyan was adamant that nothing was wrong with her leg. Brad and Jen thought it could have been a pulled muscle from playing in the yard or on the playground. They thought it would fade away, out of sight and out of mind.

Once school came around, it became evident that something was bothering Rhyan.

“Out of nowhere, she was just dreading going to school,” Brad said. “When my wife would drop her off she would just scream bloody murder and didn't want my wife to leave. We thought it was just really bad separation anxiety.”

Both the limp and the separation anxiety worsened throughout the first two months of school. Some days were so bad that Brad and Jen kept Rhyan home. Both of them thought Rhyan’s transition to a new school and leaving her mom for so long caused the conditions.

By mid-October, things still hadn’t changed. Jen reached her breaking point.

“She was a mess,” Jen said. “I think she was emotionally exhausted from not feeling well. Physically she was in pain, and I said, ‘I'm taking you in. I don't know what's going on, but we're gonna figure this out.’”

Brad and Jen took Rhyan to MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital to get an X-ray of her left leg. The initial scan revealed she had juvenile arthritis.

Jen knew it was something much worse than that.

“That word cancer just popped in my head and I just knew it was bad,” Jen said. “I remember asking the doctor, ‘Could there be cancer?’”

The doctor thought cancer was a far-fetched idea and wouldn’t let Jen’s mind go down that road.

However, when the test results came back, the doctors determined Rhyan’s condition was far worse than anticipated.

While Rhyan screamed for her parents to stay with her, Brad and Jen went out to the fifth-floor hallway and received the news that no parents want to receive: their daughter had cancer.

“I can just remember standing there and just feeling my knees getting weak and just feeling like I wanted to fall to the ground,” Brad said. “I didn't know anything about cancer, especially pediatric cancer at that. I knew the St. Jude Hospital commercials, so I had no idea what that meant, what that entailed.”

As Jen and Brad returned to Rhyan’s hospital room, they had to figure out how to tell Rhyan about what was going on inside her body.

Trying to hold back the tears, Jen set the tone for Rhyan’s recovery process in the hospital room that day — one of optimism and determination.

“I wanted to portray a sense of, ‘You know what? We got this. It's not a big deal and we're gonna get through it.’”

Rhyan’s road to recovery started immediately after her diagnosis. Once doctors confirmed the Stage IV neuroblastoma, Rhyan’s chemotherapy began and she stayed at MU Women’s and Children’s for two and a half weeks.

With Brad’s role on the Missouri basketball team, he couldn’t take long spells off of work to care for Rhyan. However, then-Missouri head coach Kim Anderson gave him the green light to miss work to spend time with his daughter.

“They made do as best they could on staff and shuffled some people around, and I'll forever be grateful that Coach Anderson allowed me to do that,” Brad said. “I don't know how I could have continued on work worrying about Rhyan every day.”

Brad returned to the team a week after Rhyan’s diagnosis, right before Missouri started its non-conference schedule. On his first day back, he slipped into Mizzou Arena while the Tigers were scrimmaging Creighton. No one on the team knew he would be returning so soon.

“I remember standing in the corner and I kinda snuck in, and during a timeout, everybody looked over at me,” Brad said. “It was a special moment because you could tell everybody was shocked to see me. I didn't tell anybody I was coming.”

The players were aware of Rhyan’s condition and everyone had individual talks with Brad throughout the season to check up on him.

“He was forthcoming with her current state and how she was traveling back and forth and how things were hard on her,” Puryear said. “I would occasionally ask, just me and him off to the side, ‘How she doing? What's the update?’ Sometimes she was having good times and sometimes it wasn't so great.”

While Brad had to balance taking care of Rhyan with the basketball team, Jen was there for Rhyan for every doctor visit, every treatment session and every thousand-mile trip to New York. Being a parent is a full-time job, but Jen’s care for Rhyan took that to the next level.

When Rhyan felt well enough to attend school, Jen stayed alongside her through the school day. Rhyan returned to her independent ways and did her school work on her own while Jen usually sat on the floor in the back and paid the bills and made grocery lists.

“I really did not interact with her at all,” Jen said. “At first I was nervous to send her there and it gave me a little bit of peace of mind to sit in the back of the classroom. But when that fear went away, she just wanted me there just for comfort.”

Jen became a fixture in Rhyan’s kindergarten classroom by the end of the year. She estimates she accompanied Rhyan to class for 90% of the school days following Rhyan’s diagnosis.

But spending all day every day with Rhyan eventually took a toll on Jen. She went through every phase of the process with her and would spend every waking moment ensuring Rhyan was healthy. It was difficult to rest, especially when Rhyan’s conditions were worsening.

“It was emotionally draining,” Jen said. “There wasn't a time that I could have a mental break.”

Rhyan couldn’t catch a physical break, much less a mental one from her symptoms. She was on different medications and had different procedures done while traveling back and forth between Columbia and New York.

Rhyan fought through pain from both medical procedures and the side effects of the medicine she was on. One medicine, Bactrim, had such strong side effects that she can no longer enjoy any food Brad and Jen mixed the drug in.

There were very few moments where Rhyan had the chance to be a worry-free kid. But at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a cancer facility in New York City, she had glimpses of that life.

With the help of her child life specialist, Maria, Rhyan escaped from IVs and chemotherapy to the playroom down the hall. The two of them did all sorts of activities together when Rhyan was in good enough condition to get up and walk around.

Rhyan didn’t need much to turn a tough day of chemo or immunotherapy into a positive day. Brad attributes that to the beauty of Rhyan’s five-year-old innocence and her determination to tackle whatever was in front of her.

“We know all the bad things that can occur, whereas a child has no idea,” Brad said. “A child is just living in the moment, and in that sense, Ryan was just like, ‘What's coming? All right, this is what we got to do. I don't like it, and I may fight you, but we'll get it done at the end of the day.’”

Even though his daughter’s name was on the marquee for the game, Brad didn’t have a hand in setting up the first Rally For Rhyan game. All of the legwork was put in by Anderson, then-MU athletic director Mack Rhoades and then-deputy athletic director Wren Baker.

“It all came together without me even realizing it,” Brad said. “I don't think they realized that we were making this push for pediatric cancer research. I think they just wanted to help us out personally.”

The game was helping more than just Rhyan; it helped out every pediatric cancer patient. The proceeds from the game went to the Rally For Rhyan Fund, a non-profit that puts money toward research trials to mitigate or cure pediatric cancer.

“As the conversation grew, we learned more about the fact that pediatric cancer research is underfunded,” Brad said.

The idea came to Brad while he sat in MU Women’s and Children’s one day in 2015. He spotted a mother and daughter he recognized from a Facebook post. They needed gas money to make two-hour trips into Columbia from Macon, Missouri for the daughter’s pretreatments.

Once Rhyan’s diagnosis went public, she received thousands of dollars to go toward the treatment process and other costs because her dad was in the spotlight. Now, he understood other families were not as fortunate as they were.

“It was just kind of a lightbulb moment for me,” Brad said.

From there, Brad and Jen established Rally For Rhyan Fund to help out Rhyan, the little girl in the waiting room and every other pediatric cancer patient in their battles with cancer.

Not long after Rhoades, Baker and Anderson came up with a gameplan. The date and opponent for the game were set: a home matchup against Tennessee on Feb. 13, 2016. There was no cost to attend, but donations to the Rally For Rhyan Fund were encouraged.

“It was definitely an emphasis that this game was certainly bigger than us and we knew that going into it,” Puryear said. “We wanted to muster up any effort possible to win the game.”

In the midst of an otherwise disappointing year, the Missouri faithful came in droves to support Rhyan and the Tigers. The turnout for the Rally For Rhyan game was the highest Missouri men’s basketball recorded all season.

The elevated crowd intensity and atmosphere at Mizzou Arena gave the players an energy boost going through the first 20 minutes as the Tigers outscored Tennessee 38-27 going into the half.

While most fans usually take the 15-minute intermission to use the restroom or grab an ice cream cone from Andy’s on the concourse, they all stayed put inside the Mizzou Arena bowl awaiting a speech from Missouri’s assistant coach.

As the Loos family and Rhyan’s best friend Cameron made the walk from the tunnel toward half court, the crowd stood in applause.

“Nothing else at that point in time mattered but getting Rhyan better, and I felt like everybody in those stands were behind us and knowing that you have support, even though we didn't know most of those people,” Jen said. “ It's hard to describe the energy that you feel when you're down there knowing that in all those people they have the same goal at that point in time, and it was just to get Rhyan healthy again.”

Once everyone had made it to half court, Brad spoke about the heartbreaking realities of pediatric cancer and the lack of research funding it receives. He noted that only 4% of the $5 billion budget for the National Cancer Institute was put toward helping kids like Rhyan. Brad also noted that pediatric cancer is the biggest cause of death by disease for children in the U.S.

“Let’s not just Rally For Rhyan,” Brad said in the speech. “Let’s rally for all of the kids that have pediatric cancer in this country and worldwide.”

Brad talked more about the goals of the Rally For Rhyan Fund and how the top oncologists had the tools to find a cure but just needed more funding to do it. He thanked everyone for coming together to support Rhyan and the cause, then ended with a statement to cancer about how his daughter would not back down from her fight.

“When you picked a fight with Rhyan Loos, you messed with the wrong little girl,” Brad said.

In Rhyan’s honor, the team put together one of its best performances of the season, shooting 54.5% en route to a 75-64 victory over Tennessee. Forward Ryan Rosburg and Puryear each had lights-out shooting performances with 21 and 17 points respectively while combining to shoot 14-17 from the field.

Once the final buzzer sounded, Rosburg found the game ball and brought it over to Rhyan. The players high-fived their coach’s daughter and signed the ball for Rhyan for her to keep.

During his halftime speech, Brad said the crowd’s donations toward the fund reached $25,000. By the end of the game, the crowd raised its collective contribution to $36,000 toward pediatric cancer research.

“There were just so many emotions in the whole thing,” Rosburg said. “And yeah, we won the game, but looking back several years later, I'm more happy with raising all that money. I think that’s the main takeaway for me.”

Every year, the Super Bowl MVP receives a parade in their honor down Main Street, USA. at Disney World. It’s the culmination of a tough season but it culminates in a ride through the crowd where they get to soak in the heroic journey.

Two years after she was declared cancer-free in December 2016, Rhyan soaked in her journey to recovery at The Happiest Place on Earth after completing an even tougher journey than those NFL stars.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Rhyan her wish to go to Disney World, where the foundation rolled out the red carpet for the week-long venture down to Orlando, Florida. The Loos family stayed at the Give Kids The World Village and skipped to the front of the line for every ride and every character photo-op.

No ride was too big or too scary for eight-year-old Rhyan. She had just overcome Stage IV cancer. Space Mountain was a smooth Sunday drive compared to that.

With every passing day, the chances of cancer coming back decrease. Rhyan is four years cancer-free and only gets scans and checkups twice a year as of last year.

“Every day we're thankful that it's another day without cancer,” Brad said. “No kid with cancer is ever cured. You're just better off than you were the day before.”

Brad and Jen had a saying throughout Rhyan’s recovery: “Just make it to tomorrow.” Since her diagnosis, Rhyan has made it through over 2,000 tomorrows. Now, Rhyan Loos, strong as ever, has many more tomorrows ahead of her.

_Edited by Kyle Pinnell and Jack Soble | kpinnell@themaneater.com and jsoble@themaneater.com

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