Every parent’s worst nightmare is that something bad could befall their child. Doubts, insecurities and anxiety are ever-presents for most moms and dads, and as parents you always try to do your best when it comes to protecting your young ones.
But some things cannot be protected against.
Michelle Russell of Puyallup, Washington experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when she learned that her four-year-old daughter Claire had a tumor in the middle of her back, touching her spine.
Although every cancer is a tragedy, it is always particularly worrying when a tumor develops in young children. Even if they survive, these children will have an experience that will shape their entire lives.
Claire was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a very rare cancer that grows in the bones or soft tissue around them. Suddenly this little girl ended up in a situation where she had to fight for her life.
Claire’s disease was discovered when the air pressure during mid-flight caused her severe pain.
Michelle said: ‘Going on that plane could have saved our daughter’s life, without it we wouldn’t have thought the pain in her back was anything more than muscle or growing pains.
The young girl was immediately rushed to hospital after the plane landed where she received her cancer diagnosis.
“She didn’t know how to ride a bike, had never stepped into a classroom, and spent most of her days in a tutu,” mom Michelle recalled, describing 4-year-old Claire when she was diagnosed with cancer.
In the next year, Claire would endure more pain and suffering than most adults see in a lifetime.
One time, Michelle was forced to hand her baby over to surgeons for a surgery that was more than twelve hours long.
“They removed four of her ribs, part of her spinal sheath, and fused her spine,” Michelle revealed, admitting that looking back at photos is hard.
Unfortunately, one of Claire’s lungs collapsed after the advanced surgery. The little girl was placed on a ventilator and spent a week in intensive care.
But, luckily, the little girl who often wore a tutu was a warrior.
“What stands out most in my mind is her utter bravery,” Michelle explained, describing the strength Claire mustered when she saw her mom cry.
“She squeezed my hand, and whispered a tiny ‘I love you,’” Claire’s mom recalled.
“She didn’t want me to be afraid, she didn’t want me to be sad.”
Claire’s cancer treatment was brutal with seventeen rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries over the course of a year.
Claire lost a quarter of her body weight, dropping to a fragile 30lbs. She would attend funerals of friends she met and loved, who were lost to the same disease she was fighting.
She would lose her beautiful head of blonde curls, nearly all of her muscle mass, and her childlike innocence.
”The chemo gave her pains sores in her throat and mouth, which made it difficult for her to eat and she lost a quarter of her body weight”, Michelle said.
Claire had ten more doses of chemo, which left her bones so weak she broke her femur while playing just weeks before being given the all-clear.
When Claire was finally declared in remission, Michelle took home “a frail, pale, bald, five-year-old, covered in scars.”
Three years later, Claire had won her war against cancer.
“Though small for 8 years old, she is beautiful, healthy, muscular, outgoing, funny, a talented competitive dancer, and an honor roll student. She is an amazing overcomer. In many ways, she has healed,” Michelle said.
But Claire still had battles she had to fight, and one of them involved the scars the disease left behind.
One morning, Michelle realized cancer had left Claire with a wound that was still very open — a wound involving her emotions and self-image.
”A few weeks ago, on a rushed morning, I threw her shorts and a tank top and asked her to get dressed. She quietly asked me for a different shirt. Oblivious and in a hurry, I said, ‘Why? You love that one, just put it on, we gotta go…
Claire refused to put on a tank top that she “loved” because a boy had told her she shouldn’t wear shirts that show her cancer scars.
For a second Michelle wanted to give that boy some scars of his own. But then she quickly came to a realization: He likely had no idea what Claire had been through.
Michelle told her daughter:
”I think what he meant, was that, the thought of what you must have gone through, to get those scars…is scary. Your scars are beautiful.”
But Claire didn’t seem convinced. Tears formed in her eyes.
Michelle sat down, pulled her close, and said, “You have an incredible story. You should be so proud of what you overcame.”
Sobbing, Claire said she just wanted to be “normal.”
Michelle tried again. She told Claire to think about all the other little boys and girls she had met, who are fighting cancer and have scars too.
“Do you want them to cover them up? Hide them?”
Of course, Claire didn’t want them to be sad.
And that did something with Claire. She showed a small smile. She reached over and grabbed the shirt, and walked out of the room.
But her daughter’s word weighed on Michelle for days.
Finally, she realized that the entire world needed a lesson, not just Claire.
“Being beautiful isn’t about hair, makeup, or clothes. Beauty isn’t perfection,”
Michelle declared, adding that “real beauty is raw.”
“Real beauty is a little girl who experienced unthinkable physical and emotional trauma and came out the other side stronger … with a deep appreciation of the fragility that is this life.”
”A little body that was once physically battered by surgeries and chemo, and now dances gracefully. That’s beauty,” Michelle wrote in a post to Claire’s Instagram followers.
“Her little body may be scarred, but it tells a story of perseverance and hope.”
I wish no child, or adult, would ever feel the need to cover their scars.
If they do, I hope they remember that by not covering them, they are inspiring an 8-year-old girl to embrace her little body that beat cancer.
Let’s teach our kids that imperfection is beauty. That bravery is beauty. That compassion is beauty.
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