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November 23, 2006

From the Herald archives: Unbreakable spirit

The sweater is purple for the Furman her daddy loves. The Crocs shoes are orange for the Clemson her momma loves.

The pumping arms when she dances to Kenny Chesney are Riley Friddle's alone.

On a road in Rock Hill called Hope Street, 3-year-old Riley fights brain cancer. She points to her head at the scar underneath her yellow pigtails that grew back from her shaved head when asked where her badge of courage is. She can't yet count to 44, but that's the number of pounds she weighs after going in for surgery five months ago at 19 pounds. The surgery was to have part of a tumor taken out of her brain.

Much of the weight gain is from the steroids that are part of her therapy, but she eats what isn't nailed down -- sometimes with both hands.

Fish and french fries has replaced fried chicken as her favorite -- sorry, Shrimp Boat.

She knows a boy named Logan at church. Logan once told a stranger who remarked how skinny Riley was before her surgery, "She's got a brain tumor -- don't you make fun of my Riley."

Riley is asked if she has a boyfriend.

"Logan," she says.

Logan is 11.

Riley -- you go, girl.

She says "Riley" when asked who the Tim McGraw song "My Little Girl" is about when the video comes on TV. Of course, she would say that: She met the big star.

She says "Go D" when she sits beside her father, Todd, when he watches the Carolina Panthers play defense on TV.

The tumor once so big it was pressing on a nerve and causing her vision to wane has yielded to where she now says "white truck" when she's riding down the road with her mother. Her mother, Andrea, then looks at herself in the mirror and says every day is Thanksgiving when you wake up and you have Riley asking to hear Bon Jovi so she can pump her arms in the dance.

"If somebody ever wondered how a kid with cancer could make you feel so great to be alive, I can tell them," Andrea Friddle said. "I would tell anyone who ever watches a child battle cancer to prepare to be inspired."

Riley squeezes a blue frog toy that is a gift from her father. Only a dad would buy a little pig-tailed girl a blue frog that has eyes that bug out when it's squeezed.

"Gross," Riley says.

Riley's June surgery and her return home to Hope Street in July that was chronicled in The Herald gave hope to others. Countless strangers called her parents, sent hundreds of cards, stopped them at the store, stared and pointed when stopped at red lights.

But Riley Friddle still has cancer.

The operation got some of the tumor, but not all of it.

She is not cured. She is not in remission. She still undergoes chemotherapy almost every week, and soon will have radiation. She has physical therapy twice a week to get her closer to walking. She takes a shoebox full of medication every day. She has a port in her chest.

And still, Riley the 3-year-old giggles when she says "poop" when the little dog Prissy does just that.

Look it up in those kid's name books -- the name Riley means courageous.

"Cancer may have affected her body, but it hasn't affected her spirit," Andrea Friddle said.

When her father comes home from work, she says "Todd." She says Todd when she wants something, her parents said.

But then she says something that Todd Friddle said, "I never get sick of hearing." It brings the burly strong father to his knees.

She says, "Daddy's home."

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