Ten-year-old Bailey Dove is facing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia with the love and support of someone who’s been through it – her identical twin sister, Lily.
The two sisters from West Bend, Wisconsin, were diagnosed two years apart, giving Lily (diagnosed in June 2013) the ability to talk Bailey (diagnosed in March 2015) through the most difficult parts of treatment.
“Lily is, in a way, a leader to Bailey because Lily’s been through all of the things that Bailey is going through,” the girls’ father, Ryan Dove, tells PEOPLE.
“Bailey is able to ask her sister questions that none of us would really know the answer to,” he adds. “Even when Bailey says she’s upset, I think Lily really appreciates what that means.”
In June 2013, the Doves were “your average American family,” mom Erin Dove says. The twins and their older sister, Maddie, then 10, were looking forward to the summer ahead.
“We were just starting summer vacation and Lily was going to horse camp and playing softball and just being an everyday kid,” Ryan says.
But Lily, then 8, began to display troubling symptoms – she was vomiting in the mornings, slowing down in softball and taking naps most afternoons. A local pediatrician told the parents it was probably just a virus, until their her skin became “almost gray,” Erin says.
The worried mother took her back to the pediatrician and the doctor presumed that Lily was anemic, so they sent for blood work.
“Within an hour or two, the doctor asked Lily to go sit in the waiting room with her sisters,” Erin recalls through tears. “I knew something was wrong.”
Lily was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The pediatrician told Erin that Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin was already preparing a room for Lily and advised that she begin treatment immediately.
“I was at work when Erin called to tell me [about the diagnosis],” Ryan says. “At that point, I had to turn into a rock. I could have certainly broken down, but all I could think about was that I had to get to the hospital to join them.”
The same day the parents received their daughter’s crushing diagnosis, they also learned about a terrifying statistic – if one child in a set of identical twins develops childhood leukemia, there’s a one-in-five chance the other will as well.
Lily’s oncologist assured her parents that if one twin is diagnosed after the age of 6 or 7, that percentage starts to decrease.
“Because Lily was 8 when she was diagnosed, we just kind of had to put that out of our heads.” Erin says. “But it was always in the back of our minds. I don t think we could ve lived if we were constantly thinking Bailey was going to get it.”
Within 72 hours of her diagnosis, Lily started chemotherapy, beginning nine months of aggressive treatments. The Doves couldn t have anticipated how their community would rally around them throughout the process.
“Even on that first day, there were a lot of people willing to step up and get us meals and help us clean our house and get our lawn mowed and things like that, so we could really focus on Lily,” Ryan says.
The Doves created Team Lily T-shirts to ensure that even on her worst days, she could see her community standing behind her.
“We wanted Lily to have some support in the school system, and it was amazing,” he adds. “Kids and parents and teachers went out and bought them and had days at school for them to be worn.”
As Lily entered the less intense “maintenance” phase of her treatment in March 2014, her parents kept a watchful eye on Bailey.
“Every time Bailey got sick in these last two years, we were always worried about leukemia,” Erin says.
In March 2015, Bailey began complaining about leg pain. While at an ice cream social one Friday night, a family friend told Erin that Bailey was looking kind of pale, much like Lily had almost two years earlier.
“Just like that, it hit me,” Erin says. “I was so scared that I tried to tell myself, ‘Well, it’s March, we haven t seen the sun in a while, we’re in Wisconsin.’ But by that point we knew the symptoms of leukemia.”
The next morning, Erin drove Bailey straight to the doctor.
“When the blood work came back, the doctor asked Bailey to sit with the nurses and I knew immediately,” Erin says.
A trip to Children’s Hospital confirmed that Bailey had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but her diagnosis was more serious.
“Because Lily was 8 and based on the fact we caught it relatively early, she was considered low risk,” Ryan says. “Because Bailey was 10 and her white [blood cell] count was a little higher, she was considered high risk of relapse.”
For this reason, Bailey will undergo a longer, more intensive treatment that will extend through June 2017. Lily, who completed her treatment in August, will be there to talk her sister through everything.
“I know Bailey does talk to Lily about some things and questions that she might have, but mostly they just comfort each other,” Erin says.
Maddie too has found strength in facing the challenge a second time around.
“We noticed a dramatic change in Maddie when Bailey was diagnosed this spring,” Erin says. “She’s always been a very carefree, fun-loving and social girl, and we’ve really noticed that since Bailey’s diagnosis, she’s kind of taken on a protector role.”
As they face almost two more years of cancer treatments, the parents do their best each day to help all three of their daughters find moments of relief.
“When we don t talk about cancer for a while, the kids go swimming, they feel normal, we feel normal, it allows us to escape for the day,” Ryan says. “We really focus on taking advantage of those good days so we have the strength to make it through the bad ones.”
The Doves have also been extremely open about their family’s journey. They share their story in the hopes that it will raise awareness for childhood cancer. Since Lily’s diagnosis, the family has fundraised and advocated for the MACC Fund and St. Baldrick’s, two organizations that support pediatric cancer research.
“Our number one goal is to have people aware of childhood cancer and to raise money for research because there’s an incredible of lack of funding,” Erin says. “You might see a kid with cancer and think, ‘That happens to other people’s families, not mine.’ Well, we’re just your average American family and it happened to ours – twice.”
She adds, “If there’s something we can do to help generate dollars for research that can save families from going through this in the future – that’s what we’re going to do.”