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Karter Ellis an Joann Duckworth hold up their shirts with inspirational sayings
September 16, 2016

Karter Ellis, Chemo Ninja Extraordinaire

Karter Ellis spent his 16th birthday in chemotherapy. Instead of writing his driver’s test and going for a spin with his dad, he was sitting in a chair with medicine dripping into his body. But that didn’t stop him from smiling.

“Even when he’d throw up,” says his primary nurse, JoAnn Duckworth, “he’d look at you and joke about something. He’s a phenomenal kid.”

“It’s one of the best places you never want to be.”

It started before Christmas, when Karter’s vision became a problem at school. He was struggling to see the board at the front of the classroom and couldn’t read his assignments. After a number of visits to the doctor, he ended up at McMaster Children’s Hospital for brain surgery. Doctors were going to remove what they thought was a benign tumour. But when they began the operation, they found a germinoma—a specific type of germ cell tumour that is usually cancerous. Karter’s was.


“I just thought, power through,” says Karter, recalling when he first heard the diagnosis. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Karter’s family braced for what they expected to be a miserable and gloomy experience. When they arrived for his first visit to 3F, the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic, they couldn’t believe how much joy filled the room. There were kids running around and giggling, volunteers playing games with patients, and welcoming staff members ready with the hugs they needed.

“It’s one of the best places you never want to be,” says Karter’s mom, Pauline. “You’re putting your child’s life in their hands. We couldn’t have asked for a better place.”

“When we were outside and I had lost my hair, people didn’t just stare.They came up to me and said, ‘good job! Keep fighting.’”

Karter received treatment at both McMaster Children’s Hospital and Juravinski Cancer Centre, winning over the teams at both sites with his resilience and positive outlook. For Duckworth, his successful treatment is a testament to how seamlessly the care team works together. “The reason that these kids can get through it and do so well,” she says, “is because this is a team effort.”

Karter also has a good sense of humour on his side. At the outset of his treatment, mom Pauline, ordered some special shirts for him to wear to his appointments. They featured funny sayings like, “this guy is kicking cancer’s butt,” and “chemo ninja.” They became a way to deflect the sympathetic stares from people wondering whether he was sick. Instead, they’d look down at his shirt and offer him a high five.

“When we were outside and I had lost my hair, people didn’t just stare,” he says. “They came up to me and said, ‘Good job! Keep fighting.’”

When Karter received some money from friends and relatives as a gift during his treatment, he came up with new t-shirt designs and asked his parents to order more shirts in all different sizes. At his next appointment, he handed them over to his child life specialist, who distributed them to his fellow patients.

Soon, he was seeing kids wearing his shirts at almost every appointment. They were smiling, laughing, pointing proudly at the sayings on their chests when someone paid them a compliment. “Every time we come in we see the kids in their shirts,” says mom, Pauline. “It’s really heart-warming.”

“I think it’s kind of inspiring, and comforting for the families and kids to see that.”

Since then, Karter has launched a fundraising campaign called Karter’s Smile Crusade to purchase more shirts and has donated more than 300 to his fellow patients. He doesn’t take credit for the shirts or boast about his generosity. He just sits back quietly and enjoys the grins they bring to everyone’s faces.

When he’s in the clinic, Duckworth can sense his positive attitude rippling across the room “All the kids and families look at kids like Karter and see how well he’s doing,” she says. “I think it’s kind of inspiring, and comforting for the families and kids to see that.”

Karter recently completed his radiation and chemotherapy and is excited to be back at school with his friends. He’s also looking forward to having more time and energy to dedicate to making t-shirts—so even more kids can be ‘chemo ninjas’ like him.