The worst nightmare for every parent is that something bad might happen to their child. Most moms and dads are always living with doubts, insecurities and anxiety, and as parents you always try to do your best to protect your young ones. But it is not possible to protect against certain things. The worst nightmare of every parent was experienced by Michelle Russell of Puyallup, Washington when she learned that her four-year-old daughter Claire had a tumor in the middle of her back and that it touched her spine. Claire was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a very rare cancer that grows in the surrounding bones or soft tissue. Suddenly this little girl ended up struggling for her life in a deadly situation. They were first alerted to the problems on a flight.
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 right away 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 go through more pain and suffering than most normal people see in a lifetime.
One time, Michelle was required to hand her baby over to surgeons for a procedure 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 in on itself after the advanced surgery. The little girl was placed on a ventilator and spent over a week in intensive care.
But, thankfully, 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.”
With seventeen rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries over the course of a year, Claire’s cancer treatment was brutal. Claire lost a quarter of her body weight, falling to a fragile 30lbs. She would attend the funeral of friends she met and loved, lost to the same disease she fought. She’d lose her beautiful blonde curls, almost her entire 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 stated.
Claire had ten more procedures 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 after the original diagnosis, 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 that she had to face, and one of them involved the scars the disease left behind.
One morning, Michelle found out that 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 didn’t want 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 minute Michelle wanted to give that boy some scars of his own. But then she quickly had a different thought: 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 started forming 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.”