Kenedi Schoeneck's journey to Mayo Clinic started on a Slip' N Slide.
"We had a day with a Slip' N Slide, and that night her belly kind of hurt," Kenedi's mom, Krista, says in a video from the nonprofit group Conquer Cancer. "I took her in and they thought maybe she had pulled a muscle."
Six weeks later, Krista noticed a bulge in Kenedi's stomach. A trip back to the doctor led to unexpected — and terrifying — news.
"Our doctor decided to do an X-ray," Krista says. "She was gone for maybe two minutes, then came back in and said, 'You guys have got to get to Rochester. The ER team is expecting you.'"
At Mayo Clinic, 7-year-old Kenedi had a series of scans, biopsies and blood draws.
"The general surgeon came in and brought up the CT scan and explained to us what it was," Kenedi's dad, Dylan Schoeneck, tells Conquer Cancer. Kenedi had Wilms' tumor, a rare type of kidney cancer.
"It was stage III because it had burst," Kristi says. "Probably that day on the Slip' N Slide when her belly hurt."
The news hit hard. But it came with rapid reassurance.
"As a parent, when you see that CT scan up on the screen, you're completely breaking down," Dylan says. "The doctor was staying super calm. I asked her, 'Are you staying calm to keep us calm or are you staying calm because you've got this?' She just looked me right in the eye and said, 'We've got this.'"
Kenedi's care team, which included pediatric oncologist and researcher Wendy Allen-Rhoades, M.D., Ph.D., came up with a treatment plan that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
"We now routinely use molecular biomarkers to risk stratify patients diagnosed with Wilms' tumor," Dr. Allen-Rhoades tells Conquer Cancer. "This has allowed us to better tailor therapy for patients like Kenedi."
Decades ago, survival rates for children diagnosed with Wilms' tumor were around 20 percent. Today, the overall survival rate is more than 90 percent. "Without the dedicated childhood cancer research that preceded Kenedi's diagnosis, it is unlikely she would have been cured," Dr. Allen-Rhoades says.
Kenedi's treatment took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant her 11-year-old sister was unable to visit her in the hospital.
"It was really hard for Tenley," Krista says. "She just had to try to imagine what her sister was going through."
Tenley doesn't have to imagine anymore. Kenedi is back home — and cancer-free. The Schoenecks say they are grateful to the team that helped her get there.
"The doctors, the nurses, the staff, the people who work the front desk — every one of them you just want to squeeze," Dylan says. "They saved our lives."
The Schoeneck sisters recently chronicled Kenedi's life-saving cancer experience in a children's book. "Chicken Strong" is the story of a chicken named Penguin who has an accident and breaks her magical pink horn. "It's about me and my cancer and my family," Kenedi says. (It's also about her chickens. The family has a flock, including one named Penguin.)
The story also is a song, with an inspiring (and catchy) chorus: "Always be strong/And never give up/’Cause we are chicken strong."
Both the book and song were made possibly through Sing Me a Story, an organization that connects kids going through tough times with songwriters who make music from their words.
"My favorite part of Sing Me a Story is that you get to see a story through a kid's eyes," says singer-songwriter Kat Perkins. "Whether they're talking about their sickness or how they cope, having a different lens to look at that through is always very special. It's so cool to be able to form a song around that story."
Perkins recently debuted her version of "Chicken Strong" to enthusiastic reviews.
"I love it," Kenedi says. "It’s the perfect song.”
You can hear the song for yourself here.
Learn more about Kenedi’s journey and Sing Me a Story in this video.