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4-year-old girl gets first haircut after surviving intense cancer battle

Four-year-old Teig Harris doesn't remember ever having hair. This cut was one her parents will never forget.
/ Source: TODAY

For most parents, taking a 4-year-old for a haircut is a chore.

For Al and Erin Harris, it was an emotional milestone.

That's because the trip to the Olathe, Kansas, couple's local hairdresser last week meant that their daughter had grown enough hair to snip, six months after the last of her grueling chemotherapy treatments. It was the first haircut of little Teig's young life.

Teig Harris, now cancer free, gets her first haircut at the age of four after years of chemo.Courtesy of Al Harris

The toddler has been cancer-free since November after a yearlong battle with rhabdomyosarcoma — a rare type of cancer that affects connective tissue. Doctors had given her just a 55 percent chance of surviving at the time, but her fight is far from over.

"It’s a mixed feeling," Al Harris told TODAY of watching the haircut. "We're happy because she’s happy and she’s recovered ... but it brings back a lot of bad memories.

"I frequently think, 'What if this is the last year?' And even as I'm watching the haircut, in the back of my mind, the thoughts linger. It’s a thing that clouds over you."

Harris remembers the exact date that cloud hit their lives: July 18, 2016. A few days earlier, Teig had started to bleed from her ear during a trip to Home Depot. At the time, her father had been poised to take a new job, and the family was preparing. When Teig went in to see a specialist for a routine procedure to clean out hear ear tubes, the family of six were forced into a very different type of planning.

Teig Harris, 4, spent months getting intense chemotherapy treatments.Al Harris

"The procedure was supposed to take 30 minutes, but just six minutes later, they came to get us," recalled Harris. "My wife, who is an emergency room nurse, knew it was a bad sign. And when we got in there, there were two doctors waiting for us. That was a really bad sign."

"We suddenly had to make some very hard decisions very fast," he remembered.

That's because the rhabdomyosarcoma they found on the left side of Teig's face was lodged in her jaw muscles and cheekbone. It wrapped into her nasal cavity and into her ear, stopping about a one millimeter from entering her brain.

They opted for immediate, intense radiation treatment at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, to shrink the cancer back.

"It’s pretty hard to watch your child go through that," Harris said. "I remember when her hair started falling out (because of the) chemotherapy. No matter how much I read, no matter how much I prepared, I wasn’t ready to watch her eyebrows fall out."

Teig with her siblings.Courtesy of Al Harris

Harris says this coming year will be an anxious one, making sure the all scans come back clean. There's a 45 percent chance cancer could return in a new form. And if all goes well, it's still going to be a long road.

"The other problem is our aggressive treatment did massive damage to her," he said. "Her back teeth were rotted away by radiation, and those were permanent teeth, so we put in caps. It also killed her cheekbone, so we have to decide how much asymmetry is okay versus how many surgeries are we going to have to put her through. Her pituitary gland was also damaged, which affects her growth. We have to decide how much do we want her to grow versus how much plastic surgery do we want to put her through?"

Teig Harris was given a 55 percent of recovery after being diagnosed with cancer as a 2-year-old.Al Harris

So it's not just any old haircut.

A number of local news stations covered Teig's haircut, as the toddler's parents are doing everything they can to draw attention to the fact that children's cancer research makes up just 4 percent of overall cancer research. It upsets Harris to think that the newest drugs used to treat his daughter were developed back in the 1960s.

Teig seemed to be satisfied with her new 'do. "Although she wanted her head shaved to look (like she did during chemo) ... she doesn't remember having hair," Harris said. "We told her, 'Let’s try a pixie cut first.'"