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Ten Junes

30 May

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June is almost here and I’ve begun to feel it—that sense of giddy anticipation for the coming summer. All the signs are here—the misty fog banks that hug the coast, the scent of jasmine in the air when I open the front door; the ruffled towers of purple delphinium that sway in the offshore breezes that slip in off the Pacific.

Since I was a girl I’ve associated June with happy affairs—a long vacation from school, the prospect of lazy days spent at the beach, a new part time job—the thrill of a budding summer romance. June was always filled with a sense of endless possibility and hope.

Then in 2007, June turned on me. It became the month my daughter, Isa was diagnosed with leukemia.

Exactly ten years have passed since Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, when the perfect month of June lost its allure and became a time associated with doctors, nurses and hospitals; with antibiotic cocktails, blood transfusions and chemotherapy. When June became a time saturated with anxiety as my two year-old developed an angry rash all over her body and suddenly stopped eating because her mouth was filled with painful sores. June was raging fevers, sweat-soaked hospital sheets and sleepless nights. June was spending our twentieth wedding anniversary in an isolated hospital room watching our daughter suffer. June was thinking Isa could die.

isa bald

Isa  in the hospital on her third birthday.

But June turned out to be other things, as well. It was the wisdom of the doctors and the compassion of the nurses who held our hands, loved our daughter and reassured us that Isa would be all right. It was when our family, friends and community gave us their unconditional support through selfless acts of kindness—big and small. June was when we received that phone call from the doctor telling us that Isa had responded rapidly to the chemotherapy and was in remission.

Ten years.

In a few weeks, Isa will graduate from sixth grade. Like the jasmine that grows outside my front door, Isa has blossomed into a beautiful young girl—outgoing, smart, funny and most importantly, kind. Today she is considered cured and shows no residual effects from the chemotherapy.

As I stand on my front porch and look out at my garden, I realize the anxiety I carried for so long is gone. I am no longer afraid. Isa is still here with us and for this I am forever grateful. As summer stretches out before me, I feel only wonder for the possibility of what is to come.

June has come back to me.

 

Isa in a commercial for Santa Barbara Cottage Children’s Hospital

 

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Miracle

12 Dec

img_0612My youngest daughter, Isa turns twelve years old today. I guess you could say she’s a bit of a miracle–born to a mother in her forties whose other three kids were practically grown up when she entered the world with a lusty cry and a head full of thick, black hair. Then, when she was a toddler, this miracle girl did something even bigger: she was diagnosed with cancer and after a fierce battle, she survived. And as a family, we also survived. The greatest miracle of all is that through this nightmare of cancer, Isa taught us how to live.

Today is a special day: Isa’s golden birthday. She is 12 on 12/12. It’s also the birthday of the Virgin de Guadalupe, who is an iconic saint in Mexican culture. When Isa was going through treatment, when her hair fell out and her belly swelled from the medication, Rene took a short trip back to Oaxaca to see his family. While in Mexico City, he went to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe to make an offering to the Virgincita and to pray for Isa’s life. Now, my husband could certainly win the prize for the best lapsed Catholic, but going to that shrine somehow comforted him, offering him hope during a very dark time.

Since that time, our family has made it a tradition to go to Olvera Street in Los Angeles on Isa’s birthday to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church to offer our thanks for another year with our beautiful daughter. We went last night and had a wonderful time, marveling at the beautiful culture of Mexico and deeply grateful that Isa is still here with us.

Happy Birthday, Isa!

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The Long Road Home

26 May

Eight isa pile of puppiesyears ago, our lives changed forever.

The doctor sat us down in the hospital room, his face full of concern. “We finally know what it is,” he said, quietly, “She has a form of leukemia.”

For two agonizing days, my husband and I had been pacing the hospital hallways waiting for the bone marrow biopsy to tell us what was wrong with our daughter. Now a pediatric oncologist with tired eyes and a stethoscope around his neck was telling us that our fourth child—our baby girl—had cancer.

Those ominous words should have expelled all the air from my lungs, buckled my knees out from under me, or caused me to run screaming down the hospital corridor—but they didn’t. Oddly, I felt only relief. We finally had a definitive answer as to why my two year-old was so sick. Yes, it turned out to be cancer—but at least we knew what it was and could immediately get started on saving her life.

I can do this, I told myself, not realizing that our ROAD TRIP TO HELL was about to begin. For the next two and a half years, our family would travel down that bumpy, pot-holed road, the gas tank running on empty, the tires balding and the radiator constantly threatening to overheat as we navigated our way through a cancer diagnosis without a map. Isa, strapped into her car seat, would thrash about in the back, sweaty and miserable as she crammed Lays potato chips into her mouth, the salty snacks the only food she ever wanted to eat. In the rearview mirror I watched in horror as my beautiful daughter morphed into this hairless, grotesque creature with a protruding belly and swollen cheeks. Her normally sweet brown eyes were filled with an unrecognizable fury caused by the steroids that we crushed into a white powder and mixed with cherry syrup, feeding it to her each night like a special treat.

The constant fear was the worst part—the multiple surgeries to infuse chemo into Isa’s spine; the weekly lab reports signaling her low blood counts which indicated a non-functioning immune system. This meant staying indoors, constant hand-washing and no visitors. A high blood count report meant that I could actually breathe again until the next round of chemo started. For years my hands rarely left Isa’s body as I felt her skin for any sign of fever. When her skin burned with a temperature over 101.5 it meant a trip back to the hospital—cool skin under my fingertips meant no infection and it was such an enormous relief it was like diving into a refreshing swimming pool on a hot, summer day.

Now, eight years after Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, the lives of our family have returned to normal—if there even is such a thing. Isa is perfectly healthy with no long-term effects from the chemotherapy. Now I can’t even remember the names of all the medications she took. Our daughter is blossoming into an intelligent and thoughtful young girl with a wicked sense of humor. Every day when I see her beautiful smile and hear her laugh, my heart fills with gratitude.

And although we are beyond delighted with our happy outcome, we do carry residual sadness in our hearts from losing children we have known and loved during this long trip. That sorrow gets easier as time goes on, but it will never go away. And I believe that’s a good thing—because in remembering those who have died, we are more apt to cherish those who are still here with us.

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As we approach the eighth anniversary of Isa’s diagnosis, I’m truly thankful for what our family went through all those years ago. I’m grateful for the friends, family and those in the medical field who supported us back then—and who still support us today. I’m grateful that this experience changed me, and that I’m not the same woman I used to be. I’m more loving, more appreciative, more present in the moment, and more at peace with myself than I was before Isa got sick. I’ve realized how incredibly strong I am. I understand that there is only right now, and most importantly, that not only is it acceptable for me to put myself first at times—it’s often necessary. After all, I’m the one behind the wheel.

Our long road trip was arduous and exhausting and I consider it a miracle we arrived home safely. I’ve no doubt there will be other journeys as our family navigates down that long road of life, but lately it’s become a much smoother ride. So smooth, in fact—that now we can actually take time to roll down the windows, breathe in the sweet spring air and marvel at the scenery.

Letting it Out

9 Apr

photo (28)You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting on my blog as much as I have in the past, which I sincerely hope you don’t think is a good thing because that would be a definite blow to my already fragile ego.

I remember when I first starting blogging, I was so in the writing zone—I would post something every few days—my brain was constantly popping with ideas. After a while the posts went down to once a week, twice a month, and then finally whittling down to once a month if at all. You get the picture.

There are several reasons I’m not posting as often. Primarily, it’s because I’m spending what little time I can carve out of my busy day to work on my novel—which, I’ve just begun to realize, is going to take way longer than I thought. I’m up to twenty eight chapters with no end in sight. I never would have thought that writing a novel would consume me so deeply. It’s a very strange process where I feel like my characters are these horrible, rebellious little people stuck in my brain, fighting with all of their might to come out while gleefully taking me down in the process. I hate them at times but mostly I love them.

I’ve also stopped blogging as much because the truth is that I’ve begun to bore myself by writing about the same topics over and over. God knows that if I’m boring myself, I can only imagine how you feel. I can even hear your voices in my head: Please stop making me cry with sad stories of kids with cancer, or For god’s sake, stop going on and on about how happy you are now that you’ve hit fifty and I swear if you post one more picture of your flower garden I will come over and personally drive my car right over your flower beds. I know, right? Sorry. Even as I write this, I’m realizing that these words sound strangely familiar which means I’ve  probably already written this exact post somewhere in the not too distant past. I’d go back and read through the archives to find it, but I’m way too tired to check.

The writing process is often agonizing. Lately I find myself trapped in these moods where nothing is ever right and all I do is moan and groan and complain and try to blame it on my husband or my kids or on the hormone situation (another topic beaten to death) and then I realize that I’m most likely grumpy because I need to let something out and the way I do that is by writing and sharing it with others. Through the act of writing I feel alive and connected with the outside world and even if it’s just a photo on Instagram, a line or two on Facebook (or Twitter, which I’m only now getting the hang of) or an essay on my blog, I feel more alive after hitting  the “publish” or “share” button. If just writing a post on my blog makes me feel so satisfied, I can only imagine the high of publishing an actual novel, so I’m going to keep at it no matter how long it takes.

Talk about good timing. Yesterday, writer Elizabeth Gilbert posted this on her Facebook page and it totally resonated with me. Here is an excerpt:

I am a writer. If I have a story in me that I’m not able to tell, things will start going wrong all over my life. If I have a story in my head and I tell it, “I’ll get to you in 2015,” that story will start to rebel, start to act out, start to claw at the walls. That’s when the shit gets dark in my world. 

Because having a creative mind is something like owning a Border terrier; it needs a job.  And if you don’t give it a job, it will INVENT a job (which will involve tearing something up.) Which why I have learned over the years that if I am not actively creating something, chances are I am about to start actively destroying something. 

And that ain’t good.

I believe that readers don’t need good writers, although that’s always a plus. The truth is it’s the writers who need good readers. Someone  probably already wrote that somewhere and I should find out who it is and give them their due credit, but I’m way too tired to check.

Life can be crazy at times and I’m often too tired to do a lot of things, but I’m not too tired to tell you something important: I appreciate you for being my good reader. Because without you, I can’t share who I am, and then all kinds of chaos breaks out inside my head.

And that ain’t good.

Another shot of my flower garden. It's just too pretty not to share.

Another shot of my flower garden. It’s just too pretty not to share.

Here I Go Again

13 Sep
The peaceful surroundings at Camp Reach for the Stars in Ojai, CA

The peaceful surroundings at Camp Reach for the Stars in Ojai, CA

I never expected to see Alice* again. Our family had met her over five years ago when our daughter Isa was first diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two and a half.

Shortly after Isa’s diagnosis we were invited to attend the American Cancer Society’s Camp Reach for the Stars—a weekend long outdoor camp for families who have a child with cancer or a child who has survived cancer. It’s an opportunity to relax and have fun with other families who have walked in your shoes; who know exactly what you’re going through and because of their experiences, can offer you hope that your child will make it through treatment and be well enough to come back the following year. Camp Reach for the Stars is where we first met Alice over six years ago.

Isa after getting her face painted

Isa after getting her face painted

The weekend camp experience is full of fun activities—swimming, hiking, zip-lining, arts and crafts, movie night and a talent show. Every child is assigned their own personal counselor so the parents can relax by themselves, have a massage, or just lounge by the pool. Three times a day when the bell rings, we all hike up the hill to the dining hall and enjoy delicious home-cooked food and great company. Over the years, we’ve all become one big family. Since we began attending camp six years ago, Alice has always been a vital presence at camp—her goofy sense of humor and loving spirit always managed put a smile on our faces no matter how discouraged we felt.

Leah and Camp Director Amanda

Leah and Camp Director Amanda

But last year, at the end of camp when everyone gathered around the fire pit for the closing ceremonies, Alice’s mother, choked up from the tears she could no longer hold back, told us that this would most likely be the last time they would be bringing their daughter to camp. A few days earlier they had found out that Alice’s cancer had relapsed for the fourth time since she was first diagnosed at the age of nine. There was little hope that any kind of treatment would get rid of the insidious tumor that had wrapped itself around her heart. Our entire family was devastated by this news. All I could think was that I couldn’t bear the thought of coming back to camp without Alice being there.

The thing is, once your kid gets diagnosed with cancer, whether you want it or not, cancer becomes a huge part of your life. It’s like receiving a lifetime membership to the cancer club. You end up meeting and becoming friends with many families who have had to deal with a child battling cancer. This can be excruciating at times because sometimes these children whom you meet and end up loving die from their cancer. You realize you have to do everything in your power to help find a cure so that more of these children don’t die.

Isa and Nora performing in the talent show

Isa and Nora performing in the talent show

So here I go again. It’s September, which means it is PEDIATRIC CANCER AWARENESS month and it’s time for me to talk about pediatric cancer again. Oh no—not again, you say. Isn’t she tired of writing about cancer yet?

Well to be honest, the answer is YES. Yes, I am tired of writing about cancer. In fact, I’d prefer to not write about it at all. I’d prefer not to hear about children who are newly diagnosed. I’d prefer not to see photographs posted on Facebook memorializing children who are no longer alive because cancer has taken their lives. I’d prefer not to see the agonizing fear in the face of another parent who is terrified about what’s going to happen to their child.

I’d prefer that pediatric cancer be wiped off the face of the earth.

But since that’s not about to happen anytime soon, I figure it’s best to keep talking about it and writing about it as much as possible with the idea in mind that perhaps someone reading this will begin to realize that more and more children are diagnosed with pediatric cancer every day, and that one day it might just be them or someone close to them who is directly affected by this disease. And maybe—just maybe, this awareness will prompt them to act in some small way to make a change—whether it be raising money for research, helping out a family in need, or simply just having a conversation about pediatric cancer from time to time. I truly believe that simply talking about something important can incite change, even in a very small way.

Last weekend, our family attended our sixth Camp Reach for the Stars. Our two oldest daughters, Nora and Leah volunteered as counselors for the camp. We had a marvelous time hanging out with everyone, laughing; eating, joking—especially with Alice. Yes—Alice was there. She was back at camp in all her glory, with no sign of cancer in her body whatsoever. The radiation zapped that tumor into smithereens and now it’s nothing more than a hazy image on an MRI filed away in some doctor’s office.

So let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s work to find a cure. It’s true that children do die from cancer, but this time, whether you believe it a miracle occurred or not, one child did not die.

There is always hope.

See you next year, Alice!

*I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy

Out of the Darkness

9 May

isa and me in hospitalThis morning, I was interviewed on K-Lite Radio for Santa Barbara’s Cottage Children’s Hospital. To most people, I’m sure it was no big deal, just a mother talking about her young daughter’s cancer experience to encourage listeners to donate to the local hospital where she was treated and cured.

And it really wasn’t a big deal, except that it was. Because, almost six years later, after my life has spun itself into a comfortable pattern of normalcy, I’m compelled to remember those dark days by once again sharing my story with others.

Over the past few years I’ve become quite adept at weaving those painful memories into the back of my mind like a skilled seamstress who has managed to hide that dark strand of yarn underneath the clean white stitches. But by reliving those frightening first days in the hospital, I’m obliged to unravel the memories and bring them back to the surface again.

I’m wise enough now to realize those memories are a gift; the surgeries and the blood transfusions; the unimaginable pain of witnessing a two year old suffer through chemotherapy treatments; watching Isa lose her hair until there was nothing left but a smooth dome of skin; seeing her belly bloat from the steroids; waking up in the middle of the night to touch her puffy cheeks to check for a fever; the overwhelming feeling of fear in my stomach that never went away; and all the while wondering if my baby was going to die.

Because if I don’t remember, I will return to the way I was before Isa got sick, when life was not as miraculous as it is today. These memories remind that I have to let go of what is not important.  I have to be thankful that my little girl is healthy and beautiful and that she is still here with me. I have to remember that what I have right now in this very moment is enough, and that my gratitude has the power to disentangle those little worries that I so expertly knit together into a tangled ball of dissatisfaction.

I have to remember the joy of coming out of the darkness and into the light.

Happy and healthy at eight years old.

Happy and healthy at eight years old.

Because of Daisy

17 Feb

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A bald-headed, freckled-faced girl named Daisy died in her sleep after being sick for a very long time. She was at home, surrounded by her loving family, and she felt no pain. But she died, and I must say that I’m so very weary of hearing of yet another family’s tragedy and loss. I’m sick and tired of children dying from cancer.

Not again, is all I can think. How can it be that another sweet, funny and adorable child has died? Why was there no miracle this time?

I’ve always believed that a positive attitude is beneficial to one’s well-being and that our life experiences are never random or fortuitous. I truly believe that what we experience here on this earth is revealed in order to teach us something essential that we’re meant to learn. I’ve discovered these fundamental lessons are usually about love.

When my own daughter, Isa was diagnosed with leukemia, an incalculable transformation took place in my life.  I saw first-hand the astounding and unquestionable shifts in consciousness that came to pass in our family, friends, and even our community during our struggle with Isa’s cancer. Love was always the main component.

I see these miraculous changes have also occurred in Daisy’s family and in the huge number of people who knew and loved her—even strangers who’ve only heard of her fierce battle through her blog http://prayfordaisy.tumblr.com  or on Facebook.

I know Daisy’s family carries the strong faith that she’s all right now and I believe this, too. But from what I’ve seen over the past five years since I first became a part of the pediatric cancer world, the pain and hurt is only just beginning for them. Every time I think about her mama and daddy not being able to hold their precious Daisy in their arms, my heart breaks a little more.

When I think about what Daisy’s family has faced and what they’ll continue to face in the coming days, months and years, an infinitesimal part of their burden becomes mine and it hurts deeply.

Yet, I am grateful.

I’m grateful because each time a child dies from cancer, I’m reminded that by some small shred of grace that was bestowed upon me and my family, my daughter is still here, and I’m blessed with the chance to watch her grow up.  I will never have enough words to express my extreme gratitude for this miracle. I only wish that Daisy’s parents had been able to experience this miracle, too.

Yes, Daisy suffered and ultimately died, and we all know that this is the worst thing that could ever happen to a family. Yet, because of Daisy, we are changed forever. Because of Daisy, we can appreciate the blessings we have in our lives. Because of Daisy, our love and compassion for others keeps growing and expanding and filling up the universe.  I believe that this understanding of love is one of the greatest lessons we could ever learn. This kind of love is the real miracle.

Bless her little heart,  Daisy taught us well.

Cancer Causes Love

26 Sep

On a recent sultry September afternoon, I watched happily as my seven year-old daughter, Isa scrambled around with other children at the park, her long, dark hair swinging across her back as she dodged the hot sun under a canopy of shady oak trees. She’s come a long way since that time five years ago when her little bald head was as smooth and hairless as a ripe honeydew melon.

Last Sunday, our family attended the annual reunion party for the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Pediatric Oncology Department where Isa was treated for her leukemia when she was two years old. We always look forward to going to this event because we get to see the many friends that we’ve made at the hospital, but mostly we go because sometimes we just need to be reminded of how lucky we are.

Isa, about a month before her cancer diagnosis.

Isa has now been cancer free for over five years, and so our day to day lives no longer revolve around chemo treatments, bone marrow aspirations, spinal taps or blood and platelet transfusions. No longer do I wake up in a panic in the middle of the night because my daughter is running a fever and I have to rush her to the hospital. It’s been a very long time since I had to cradle her head as she vomited from the chemo or deal with her black moods brought on by the steroids.

As time goes on it gets easier to forget that scary time in our lives. Things have returned to normal—or to whatever “normal” is. My husband and I still experience the usual day to day worry that many other married couples do—such as how to pay the bills, how to pay the bills, and how to pay the bills, but this particular worry is nothing compared with the added anxiety that our child could possibly die.  Luckily, we’re now home free and we get to cross cancer off our list.

Isa, bloated and bald after six months of chemo.

This is why I’m writing about pediatric cancer again. At the hospital reunion party I saw children of all colors and sizes—more than a few of them with bald heads, and I was reminded that there are still too many families who have yet to cross cancer off their list. I was reminded of three year-old Lexi Krasnoff, who at last year’s party, took off all of her clothes and ran naked through the park, the dome of her fuzzy head gleaming in the sun. Lexi wasn’t with us at the party this time because she died of her leukemia last February. Her parents have crossed cancer off their list, but not in the way they had prayed.

Cancer is always a very nasty thing, especially when it comes to children, and it’s always a struggle no matter what the circumstances are. Yet there is one beneficial side effect from cancer, whether your child lives or dies from this disease: It is LOVE.

During those first days when Isa was in the hospital, when I was as terrified and vulnerable as a child lost in the wilderness, I experienced a huge shift in my consciousness. I became aware that I was not all alone in this universe and that there were multitudes of people around me—hospital staff, family, friends, and even complete strangers whose love for Isa and our family enveloped us in huge bear hug and lifted us out of that all consuming darkness and fear. I was open to something I would have never known before Isa’s cancer diagnosis: the genuine connection of pure love that exists between each and every one of us.

There’s just something about a child with cancer that makes you forget that negative way of thinking—you know what I’m talking about—those feelings of judgment, resentment, envy and hate with which we’ve become so damn comfortable.

When you learn of an innocent child who’s been diagnosed with cancer, your first reaction is “That poor family! What can I do to help?”  You stop thinking of yourself for a moment and your heart opens up a little more. Your perspective on life changes and you realize how lucky you are that your child is not experiencing something so dire. Perhaps you even begin to appreciate those around you more and your capacity to give and receive love becomes more significant. Your connection with others begins to synchronize and you begin to understand that all of us are exactly the same on the inside.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could experience this profound connection with others without a child having to suffer through the disease of cancer? Wouldn’t it be incredible if it didn’t take something as hideous as pediatric cancer to allow us to love and appreciate each other on a deeper level?  Wouldn’t it be perfect if no child ever had to suffer through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation again in order to teach us about this magnificent gift of love?

There’s no doubt about it—love grows and evolves when a child is diagnosed with cancer. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. And because September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a time when we all need to be reminded to nurture this love and spread it around. There is ample opportunity to help: volunteer for an organization that helps children with cancer, make a donation to cancer research, or reach out to a family whose child has been diagnosed with cancer.

Let’s keep this awareness alive and do all we can to find a cure so that someday, an innocent child won’t have to suffer through the pain of cancer treatment just so you and I can learn to love each other the way we’re meant to.

http://teddybearcancerfoundation.org/

http://www.sbch.org/OurHospitals/CottageChildrensHospital/tabid/150/Default.aspx

http://www.curesearch.org/

http://www.lls.org/

Bald is Beautiful

2 Aug

My twenty-one year old daughter just shaved her head. When she first told me she was considering doing it, I reacted in my usual jump-to-conclusions-quick-to-disapprove mode and spoke before I took the time to think. I told her she was being impulsive and that she would look ridiculous.

“No one will take you seriously if you cut off your hair, Leah!” I yelled at her, “You just want to do it for the attention you’ll get!”

The look on her face made me want to suck those awful words right back into my mouth, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of her shaving off her beautiful chocolate brown hair that framed her lovely face and fell like silk across her shoulders. Truthfully, the thought of seeing another child of mine with a bald head was just too much for me to face.

You’d think that as her mom, I would have been more supportive of her decision to shave her head, especially after I found out why she wanted to do it, but I’m stubborn sometimes and it takes me a while to see the big picture. At first, all I could think of was how funny she would look, and secondly, what would people think, and finally, how much I would miss her long, thick hair. I’m embarrassed to say that I tried unsuccessfully to talk her out of it.

Daddy cutting off Leah’s braids

Yet, despite my lack of enthusiasm, our entire family traveled down to Los Angeles last Sunday to watch Leah shave her head in front of hundreds of people at a mall in the center of Hollywood. She recently joined 46 Mommas Shave for the Brave, a group of moms who shave their heads publicly to raise money for St. Baldrick’s, a foundation that funds pediatric cancer research. They call themselves 46 Mommas  https://www.facebook.com/46Mommas because each weekday, 46 children are diagnosed with cancer in the United States—that’s two full classrooms of children! All of these moms have had a child diagnosed with cancer, and some of them have even lost their children to this insidious disease. These extraordinary women came to Hollywood from all over the United States and Canada to tell their personal stories of survival and loss.

Now, Leah is not a mom of a cancer survivor, but she’s close to being one. She was fifteen when Isa was born, so she spent a great amount of time being a second mommy to her little sister. Because of Leah’s enthusiasm and commitment to raise money for cancer research, this wonderful organization graciously allowed her to join them as an honorary member.

I cannot remember ever experiencing a more beautiful day in Los Angeles. The atmosphere in the Mall at Hollywood and Highland was electric. Our family sat in awe as we observed  mom after mom sit on the stage and tell stories of their cancer journeys while their heads were being shaved. Many of them, like Leah, donated their hair to help make wigs for children who have gone bald from chemotherapy treatment.

When it was Leah’s turn to be shaved, my daughters, Nora and Isa, and my son, Nino and I walked tentatively up on stage. We encircled Leah, and watched teary-eyed as my husband Rene took the electric razor and began to shave her head. Rock music blared in the background and the crowd cheered enthusiastically as KTLA newscaster Lu Parker interviewed Leah about why she was there.

Lu Parker from KTLA interviewing Rene

Leah was really doing it, and I have to admit, it was spectacular! The smile on Leah’s face was radiant. I began to cry as I flashed back to a day five years earlier, when we had just returned home from spending two weeks in the hospital after Isa’s initial diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Isa had been so very sick for two weeks, burning up with uncontrolled fevers as her anemic body tried to fight off the many infections that coursed through her blood. Even with plasma and platelet transfusions, her compromised immune system could not put up a good fight against the leukemia. It was a frightening time for all of us—knowing there was a chance that we could lose her.

That morning, tufts of Isa’s thick brown hair covered her pillow, and we realized that it was indeed happening—the chemo was making her hair fall out no matter how much we hoped it wouldn’t. We decided to shave her head because we knew it would all come out eventually.

I remember how brave my husband acted as he shaved Isa’s little head, even though he couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks as the electric razor buzzed around her tiny head. Bunches of her long hair fell silently to the ground like downy feathers around our feet. In our minds, we all knew on some level that Isa had leukemia, but through this simple act of shaving off her hair, we finally understood in our hearts that Isa really did have cancer, and this initial realization was crushing.

Isa after we shaved her head

Yet somehow, probably because we had no choice, we made it through to the other side, stronger and more caring than we were before this thing called cancer came into our lives. I can’t believe that five long years have gone by since that terrible day in 2007. Next week, on August 6, Isa will be considered completely cured of her leukemia, and we are so grateful that she is here with us, healthy and vibrant, with long, dark hair that cascades down her back like a horse’s mane.

Changing places: now Isa is the one with long hair and Leah is the bald one!

In the end, I was correct—Leah did shave her head for the attention it would cause, but my assumptions about why she did it were completely wrong. Leah shaved her head because she is a brave soul with a huge heart who cares so deeply about finding a cure for cancer that she will go to the extreme of shaving her head in order to raise awareness about childhood cancer and thus encourage others to donate to the cause. By drawing attention to herself in this way, she knows that people will be able to put a real story and face to pediatric cancer—a story about a young woman’s tremendous love for her little sister who fought cancer so bravely and survived.

Today, we are so thankful that Isa was cured of her leukemia. We attribute her survival to the thousands of hours dedicated to cancer research over the years—research that was funded by so many wonderful organizations like St. Baldrick’s, and which gave Isa a ninety percent chance of survival instead of a certain death sentence.

The Mireles Clan supporting Leah

When “Shave for the Brave” was just about over, an invitation came out across the loudspeaker for any volunteers who wanted to shave their heads in solidarity for the 46 Mommas. All of a sudden, I heard my husband’s voice being interviewed. Rene was getting his head shaved, too—just to show his support for Leah.

It’s Leah’s turn to shave Daddy

As I discovered last Sunday, bald really is beautiful, and so are the 46 Mommas and all of their supporters who work so diligently to keep up this valiant fight against pediatric cancer in our minds and in our hearts. I’m so proud of Leah for making this selfless gesture on behalf of all children with cancer. Fight on, Leah, and fight on Brave Mommas!

Riding the Waves

14 Jun

My seven year-old daughter is Hanging Ten this week. The soggy gray drizzle of Santa Barbara’s typical June weather doesn’t discourage my little brown “Wahine” as she dons a miniature wet suit and wades into the frigid Pacific Ocean. Spread with a thick layer of sunscreen and a light dusting of sand on her cinnamon skin, she is as delicious as a warm sugar bun fresh from the oven. Isa giggles and shrieks with delight as the foamy tide hungrily swallows up her feet and as I watch her leap and dance upon the shore I’m so full of gratitude that my heart physically hurts.

This week, Isa gets to do something for which I would never consider paying good money for her to learn to do: SURF. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a California girl born and raised, and I most certainly do appreciate the sport (or art form) of surfing—it’s just that the $400 for five days of surf camp isn’t something our budget can realistically handle at the moment.

The most wonderful and marvelous detail about this story is that I don’t have to pay for surf camp—Isa gets to participate in this camp for free. She gets this opportunity because when she was two and a half years old, she came close to losing her life to cancer, and surf camp is just one of the many “cancer perks” she has received since her diagnosis over five years ago.

All of you know that cancer (especially when kids get it) is mostly evil and rotten and torturous, but as I’ve reiterated since the start of our wild journey into the world of pediatric cancer, it’s also responsible for bringing beauty and kindness and love into the lives of patients and their families. One of the most moving aspects of being thrown into this whole cancer mess is discovering how many people out there are willing to help make your life easier. This week, the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation and Surf Happens of Santa Barbara have stepped up for us, sponsoring Isa for a week of surf camp so that she can climb up on a surfboard and ride a wave for the very first time in her life.

Now, over the past five years, I’ve learned to appreciate these “cancer perks” that have been generously given to Isa and the rest of our family since she was  diagnosed with her leukemia. I first heard the term, “cancer perks” from writer John Green, whose teenage characters in his novel The Fault in Our Stars discuss the various perks they receive because they are fighting cancer. (I highly recommend reading this poignant, yet often hilarious love story if you want to understand a little more about how life-changing pediatric cancer can be, not only for the patient but for the entire family as well.)

Some of the “cancer perks” our family has received over the past few years are: financial support during Isa’s initial hospitalization, loads of fun parties, free tickets to events, weekend family camps and presents too numerous to even count. Let’s not forget the Big Kahuna perk—the all expenses-paid trip to Disneyworld (Thank you, Make-a-Wish Foundation for an experience our family will never forget.) We’ve accepted these gifts with great appreciation and gratitude, but now that Isa is coming up on her five year anniversary of complete remission, the idea that we should still be receiving “cancer perks” weighs on my mind quite a bit. The internal struggle I’ve been facing is that I wonder if it’s still all right for Isa to get free stuff even if she’s going to be considered cured in a few short months?

You may not realize it, but a ton of guilt attaches itself to a family of a cancer survivor. Bottom line is that your child is alive, while some of your friends’ children have died. The guilt that comes with this experience is often wrenching (although I know our pain is only a minute fraction of the pain that my friends feel after having lost their child.) Then there’s the guilt you feel when your child is done with her treatment and is now living a happy and healthy life, while other children are suffering through their chemotherapy and are constantly miserable. You are beyond elated that your child made it and want to shout it to the mountaintops, but feel the need to keep it to yourself so as not to make anyone feel too badly that they’re still in the thick of it.

A few weeks ago Isa and I attended the annual “Family Fun Day” event put on by The Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation. It’s a chance for families to get together at a ranch in our local mountains and just relax and have fun with other families who have children battling cancer. I was surprised to have met so many new families whose children have recently been diagnosed, and as I watched the parents interact with their kids, I could see the fear in their eyes, even though they were smiling and laughing and acting as if they were having a good time.

I know exactly how they feel—how their world has shrunk into a place where you only think about cancer and treatment and worry and fear; a world where you carry plastic bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere you go to kill any microscopic germs that may infect and sicken your immune-suppressed child; a world where you try to get your kid to eat even a tiny bit of healthy food even though they shake their heads and cry and tell you that they’re not hungry.

I talked to a few parents whose children have been diagnosed with the same leukemia that Isa had. I remember when Isa first got sick, any story of survival gave me the faith I needed to get through another day, so my hope is that by relating our happy ending to them, they are comforted by the fact that if my child survived, theirs will too.

I guess I’ve just answered my own question about whether or not it’s all right for us to still be receiving “cancer perks.” Of course it is. Our role is that of cancer warriors—if we beat it, then so can you. If our presence offers hope to others, then accepting perks like surf camp is the right thing to do.  If we turn our sad story into a triumphant one,  then perhaps the guilt can be left behind.

I believe that because Isa had cancer, she will never again be just an ordinary girl. Her cancer experience has turned her into something special because she’s a survivor and for this reason alone, she’s a bright light of hope for those families who are waiting and watching as their own child goes through treatment. It’s our responsibility to do whatever we can to ease the pain of others who find themselves navigating helplessly through the rough waters of pediatric cancer.

My sweet little bald Isa.

I’ll never forget that I was once caught in that storm, feeling as if I was about to capsize without a lifejacket. Even today, I think about cancer every morning when I run the hairbrush through Isa’s long, tangled hair while she whines and complains that I’m such a mean mommy to be hurting her this way, and I remember the time when there was nothing growing on her bald little head. I think about cancer when she comes home from school and runs into my piano studio to kiss me hello and gushes on about what her teacher taught her, or what her best friend said, and these seemingly mundane moments make me happier than I ever thought I could be.  I think about cancer when I tuck her in at night and kiss her smooth cheeks, and I no longer have to force her to swallow four different kinds of chemotherapy pills before she drifts off to sleep.

I’m not able to leave the cancer world behind because as I’ve said so many times before, I don’t want to. Isa’s cancer has helped turn me into the person I needed to become. I refuse to stop thinking about cancer because if I do, I might lapse back into that woman who I used to be—the one who was ungrateful and disappointed and dissatisfied for so long—the one who used to stand on the beach and moan and groan about the sand and the tar and the freezing water.

I realize now that I’m lucky to be where I am today. All of that pain and suffering that our family went through has made me aware that the beauty and magnificence of life is hurtling down upon us every minute of every day, just like those perfect green waves that form and curl, and then break upon the shoreline, never resting, never stopping, never giving up.

So I’ll take the “cancer perks” for as long as they’re offered, and in turn, I’ll be right there, holding Isa’s hand as we stand on the beach, the frothy waves crashing over our feet, our presence there offering absolute proof to others that anything is possible.