Kaylee Tolleson’s life changed last year when, at 9 years old, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
The young Missouri City resident’s subsequent recovery and inspiring story has brought her widespread recognition, which continued this week with a special surprise.
On Monday morning, Tolleson and her parents met with U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, who represents them in Congressional District 22, for what they thought was simply a meet-and-greet. The aspiring figure skater figured she was there to see the skates of Olympic gold medalist and former Sugar Land resident Tara Lipinski, which are displayed in the lobby of Sugar Land City Hall.
Right on cue, however, Olson surprised Tolleson by also presenting her with several gifts. Along with a softball that’s been on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, he brought out a framed poster and copy of his speech on the House floor last month about Tolleson’s bout with cancer – immediately eliciting a gasp from the shocked Tolleson.
“It means a lot, and getting things that were on the floor of the U.S. House is pretty awesome and cool,” she said.
Olson said Monday’s proceedings were his way of ensuring Tolleson never forgets her fight.
“You were beautiful then, and you’re beautiful now. Nothing has changed,” he told her. “…These are just things for her to remember how special she is and what an amazing story she is.”
Many might know that story by now.
In March 2019, Tolleson went to the doctor after about three months of severe lower abdominal pain. Following a CT scan, ultrasound and other tests, startling news was delivered. Tolleson had a 10-centimeter malignant tumor on her right ovary.
The diagnosis was rare for a child that young. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ovarian cancer strikes 0.3 out of every 100,000 females age 5-9.
Such a diagnosis, Olson said, might have sucked the spirit out of many children – but not Tolleson.
“When she found out, she didn’t feel sorry for herself and didn’t get down – she fought through it,” he said. “She got to ring that bell, and now she’s cancer free.”
A beaming Tolleson, who was declared cancer free in August, said Monday morning that her key to keeping the faith was simple.
“(This journey) has been a long time, but it doesn’t really feel like it, because time just flies by,” she said. “Believing in yourself gets you further than not believing in yourself.”
As part of her recovery, Tolleson first had surgery to remove the tumor and her ovary on April 1, according to a news release from Texas Children’s Hospital.
By that point, the cancer had spread to her abdominal wall and morphed into Stage 3 cancer, according to the hospital. Following the diagnosis, Tolleson underwent 12 weeks of chemotherapy.
She was in the hospital for one week for treatment, then at home for two weeks to recover — a process during which she coped with severe nausea, according to Texas Children’s Hospital.
Throughout the ordeal, Tolleson’s spirit is what kept her own parents going in spite of their pervading worries.
Normally the parents teach the children, but in this case, her mother, Kelly Tolleson, said the roles were reversed.
“It’s completely amazing to see what she’s been through, how strong she’s been and how she’s kept us strong with her happy personality. When we saw her strong, it kept us strong without falling apart,” Kelly said. “It’s amazing to see how (Kaylee) is today. It’s been a very tough journey, but she’s a true inspiration. She inspires me.”
Olson called Kaylee a “special young lady” with the heart of a champion. As a final gift, there was even a spot picked out in Sugar Land City Hall’s display case for her first gold medal – right next to Lipinski’s skates.
“Her spirit is amazing, and mom and dad did a great job raising this young lady to have that character and perseverance when she’s facing death and cancer,” Olson said. “It can mean, ‘I’m going to die.’ But she said, ‘I’m going to fight, and I’m going to win.’ That’s just a great Texas story.”
What the young girl missed the most while battling cancer was the feeling of the ice beneath her skates. It’s been her passion since taking up the sport three years ago.
“She got on the ice, she started skating without holding onto the rail, and there she went,” Kelly said with a laugh. “She said, ‘I love it, I want to go to classes,’ and she’s still going.”
Indeed, she is. Whether that path takes Kaylee to the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan or elsewhere, the youngster is free to pursue her dreams.
“I won,” she said.