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#2KStrong: Karin's Story

She’s the kind of girl that you look at and can’t help but smile. She walks into a room and every single face lights up. Laughter follows her and even echoes around her own voice. She’s smart, sweet, and a pretty unreal basketball player, too.

Just ask her mom, who is quite obviously her biggest fan.

“Her best quality? She’s caring,” said Jen as she looked at her daughter, Karin.

“She had a little doll—and she does not like dolls now—but she had this one doll that she would talk to and she would cuddle it, she was pretending to be a like a little mommy. And she would take this doll with her everywhere. And then it turned into a kitty…it’s just a little stuffed kitty. And she would just treat it like it was her own little baby. And she was probably two or three years old. But she would bring it everywhere; if we lost Kitty, we’d have to go find Kitty and bring Kitty to wherever we were.”

Jen Khuong, mother of Karin, has a lot of childhood memories about her daughter that her and her husband hold a bit closer to their hearts lately.

“We were at the mall […] we were at the gumball machine,” said Karin’s father, Anthony. “Gave her a quarter and she went to grab the gumball and then of course, she turned it, the gumball came out and dropped and rolled across the mall. I told her not to get it and she started running around it and the put it in her mouth afterwards.”

“And I think Anthony was like, ‘Don’t eat it! Don’t eat it!’ And she like, puts it in her mouth…yeah, it was pretty funny,” Jen laughed.

While their two sons, Jacob and Justin, go off to school each day and live as normal of a life as they can, Jen stays at home with Karin. And after spending a bit of time with the Khuong family and all of Karin’s friends, it’s evident that Karin wishes she could be at school or running around the basketball court, as usual.

On the surface, Karin is just like any other 14-year-old girl: she has an amazing bond with her best friends, a blossoming basketball career in the making, and a family who supports her more than most. She even has a dog that will literally do flips just to get her attention.

But if you look at her—truly look into her eyes and admire the twinkle that seems to shine brighter than the sun—you’d never know that Karin Khuong has stage four cancer.

The Not-So-Happy Birthday

On the day before Karin’s 14th birthday, something wasn’t right.

“She had just came home from basketball practice,” Jen recalls. “She took a shower and she was laying up in her room and she’s like, ‘Mom, come up! My leg is really swollen,’ so I went up there to go take a look—and it was her thigh—and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ So I immediately thought it was a DVT (deep vein thrombosis).”

After contacting Karin’s basketball coach Mike Carkner, who also happens to be a doctor, Jen took Karin to emergency. The hospital did multiple tests. They realized quickly that it was not a DVT, but the nurses and doctors were unable to pinpoint a diagnosis just yet.

“They were all just like, ‘We’re going to tell you right now, we don’t know what it is, but we’re doing every single test that we can think of.’”

Jen was even prepared to give her own kidney to Karin, since the test for her kidney function came back a bit high.

“I’m ready to give her my kidney because […] that’s what I thought it was. And then one of the last tests was a CT scan of her abdomen.

“And that’s when they found multiple tumours,” said Jen.

That night proved to be one of toughest moments for both Jen and Anthony, as they had to tell their daughter about the tumours. Even though they still were unsure about their extent—be it they were benign or cancerous.

“I don’t really remember that day,” Karin said of that night. “I found out the day before my birthday. And I had all my friends over at the hospital, and then I remember someone came in and said that [my] friends should leave. And then my parents told me.”

Karin’s bravery covered her like a warm blanket.

“So we had to tell her that night,” said Jen. “And typical 2K, she didn’t even cry or anything. And I’m like, ‘Do you understand?’ and she’s like, ‘Yup,’ and then she’s like, ‘I have cancer?’

“And at that point, we didn’t know.”

Once she was transferred to BC Children’s Hospital, Karin had a biopsy done—on her 14th birthday at this point—and it was clear that she, in fact, had Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) and it was Stage 4. Which meant that the cancer had spread. It was large. And not only did she have it in her abdomen, but also throughout her neck and chest, too.

Jen and Anthony, again, had to make the tough decision of telling Karin about her cancer.

“Again, she didn’t even cry or anything. I don’t know if she really, truly understood. Or maybe she did, but she was really strong.”

As parents, Jen and Anthony had to keep it together for Karin, too, but they found themselves in unchartered water.

“We were devastated. It wasn’t the cancer that we…” Jen hesitated. “You know, we were kind of doing some research, so we were actually hoping that it was going to be lymphoma. I mean, I never thought I’d wish for a cancer, but if that’s the cancer you want to have, it’s going to be lymphoma because it’s just an easier cancer to control and get rid of.

“This one (RMS) is a rare cancer and it takes to chemo really good, but you have a chance that it’s going to come back again, so that’s why we weren’t too happy about hearing the diagnosis.”

Jen took a deep breath and looked over at her daughter, who lay quietly on the coach beside the open kitchen on a beautiful sunny day in October. Like the warm rays reaching into the kitchen and creating light in spaces that usually looked dark, she smiled after wiping away a tear.

“But I mean, we’re talking about 2K here, so she’s that small percentage of hope.”

More Than a Nickname

Ever wonder how Karin got the nickname 2K?

“So, that is from Steve Frost, so Teena Frost’s husband,” began Jen.

“He’s always had a thing about having nicknames for everybody. We call him Frosty, that’s his nickname,” Jen continued. “And he was calling her beast for a while, and I’m like, ‘Uh,’ I didn’t really like that. And then it was 2K—and that just stands for Karin Khuong, it’s just two K’s. So, it’s just 2K.”

But she’s so much more than just 2K—her nickname is known far and wide on the basketball court, somewhere her coaches and life-long friends see the real Karin Khuong shine.

“She’s the heart and soul of our team,” said Coach Mike Carkner. “She’s tough as nails and on the other side of it, she’s got enthusiasm for life and for the game. And so, she brings that spirit in the gym, as well…she’s just a great kid to be around.”

And Coach Teena Frost, who not only is Karin’s coach, as well, yet also the mother of one of her best friends, Kianna, agrees.

“I’ve known her for over a decade, so since she was four,” Teena said. “She’s super inclusive. When I think about Karin, it’s all about getting to know new people. We’ve had some girls join the [basketball] team later than other and Karin’s always the first one to invite them to a birthday party or to sleepovers, so super inclusive and kind of a glue type of kid that keeps the team going. She’s also a bit of a goof, so she likes to have fun both on-and-off the court.”

All of her teammates say she’s not only one of the best players on the team, but also one of the most caring outside of the sport, too.

“She’s super sweet and she’s always thinking about other people first,” said Kianna. “She’s one of the strongest people I know and she’s someone who never quits, she doesn’t give up ever. No matter what, so she’s super determined.”

One night during practice at Terry Fox Secondary School, the gym was packed full of Karin’s teammates, all running drills and shooting hoops. Karin joined them, too. Even though earlier that day, she had a chemo treatment.

“She’s the kind of kid you wouldn’t know she has cancer,” said Coach Carkner. “That’s how she rolls.”

Karin says basketball is one of her favourite sports and it’s no surprise she’s such an amazing athlete; she’s been playing since she was in Kindergarten.

“It’s just fun playing with them and it’s a great experience that I get to play with my best friends.”

When Karin first started playing basketball, she practiced drills with beanbags. It wasn’t until Grade 4 or 5 that she played in her first tournament with the PoCo Galaxy.

“I think [the tournament] was called “Shoot for the Stars” and oh my god, Karin was lights out,” Jen said. “She would steal the ball; she was dribbling it up, doing left-hand layups.”

As Karin progressed as a basketball player, she looked to play at higher levels. That’s when she tried out for the club basketball program with VK Basketball.

“VK was a pretty amazing experience. We were pretty lucky that they took us on as a whole team. I know Teena and Mike probably wouldn’t have done it any other way, so it was such a great experience,” said Jen on the program.

Karin’s entire team that she plays with at Terry Fox was able to play together as a whole with Coaches Frost and Carkner mentoring the VK U14 team, too. Jen had the honour to watch her daughter play at an elite level while travelling around America with her.

“VK has been awesome for Karin. I think she grew as a person. I mean, obviously I’m going to say she makes me proud, but she’s a good little basketball player.”

This past summer, Karin was able to compete in the Jr. NBA competition with VK U14, where her team nearly went to the world championships, but unfortunately lost by 3 points.

Regardless of the loss, Karin says her basketball journey so far has been unforgettable.

“I got to travel around the states with my basketball team and that was really fun. We got to play in great tournaments and we were competitive. I think that was a great experience for us.”

Collecting Memories

On a beautifully crisp November afternoon, Jen and Karin took a walk around their quiet community in the Citadel area.

“I’ve got lots of memories here,” said Jen as she gazed around Castle Park. “I love this neighbourhood. We used to come here, to this park, all the time when the kids were little. And one particular—I remember it was snowing—like crazy snow, the snow was up to my knees, and I decided to take all three of the kids.”

The park is big. If you’ve ever been to Castle Park for the fireworks, picture that entire landscape completely covered in compact snow.

“I think Justin was only…he was a newborn, Karin was two. She did not want to go, but I’m like, ‘Let’s go to the park,’ so we’re going to come walk over here and it was a long…it felt like a long walk because she didn’t want to go. She was freaking out the whole time. But once we came here, we were playing in the snow and making snow angels and snowmen. It was just…it was great. It’s one of those memories that you just kind of never forget,” Jen said while admiring the scenery around her.

These memories are something Jen and her family keep near and dear to them, especially as they go through such a difficult feat in their life.

“It’s definitely brought us closer,” Jen said about her daughter’s cancer. “I don’t know how to describe it really, it’s just been a horrible thing to go through together and so our feelings have really…we had to really kind of express our feelings and even her brothers…”

She paused.

“They’ve had a really hard time,” she continued. “Especially the oldest (Jacob) has come and talked to me and asking me questions and of course he’s kind of Googled some stuff on the computer about it, which I told him not to Google…because that’s not her. And that’s not her number…so in that sense, it’s kind of brought us closer because we’re trying to talk to each other and just trying to support each other and support Karin, too, at the same time.”

Jacob, 15, and Justin, 12, share a special bond with their sister. After speaking with the two at their house near Citadel Middle School, it’s easy to see their admiration for Karin, despite the usual sibling antics.

“I love how she’s really generous, caring, and nice,” said Justin. “Sometimes we can argue and stuff, but that’s just normal sibling stuff.”

“She can be pretty goofy sometimes or weird. She’s tough and she’s really caring with other people…she’s really energetic and she’s a really good athlete,” added older brother, Jacob.

When asked who would win a game of 21:

“Most likely Karin,” he laughed.

While the subject of Karin’s cancer seems almost taboo to her two brothers, they too try to remember the little moments that make them smile, instead.

“I think it was a few years ago—my brother, Justin, he grabbed a couple of dog treats and covered it with chocolate, and pranked my sister that it was actually chocolate and she bit into it and she just threw it up right away,” recalled Jacob.

“It was pretty good,” giggled Justin. “Because she shoved some dog food in my mouth before, so my dad was like, ‘Okay, get Karin back for this.’ So I told her I was going to make some chocolate covered raspberries or whatever, but then I actually got some dog treats, covered it, sold it to her for like 10 cents.

“And I was just like, ’10 more cents to add some caramel sauce on it!’ Put some caramel sauce on it and gave it to her and she was just like, ‘EWWW, what is this?’ and spat it out. That was pretty funny.”

The whole family laughed along as Justin told that story.

It’s amazing how such an awful situation has brought the Khuong family together more than ever before. It’s a bittersweet moment, really, but it’s easy to see that Karin draws her strength from those around her—especially her mom.

“She’s always been like that,” Jen said on Karin’s bravery. “I don’t know where she gets it from. I think we’re pretty strong, we’re trying to be really strong and positive around her, but honestly, she has always been like that since she was little.

“She would fall and she wouldn’t cry about it. She’s just…that