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How one family fought their daughter's leukemia--and won

California, MD- “Your child has cancer”--words no parent should ever hear. Sadly, though, each year thousands of children are diagnosed with some form of cancer.

Leukemia is the most common form of cancer in children—it accounts for more than 30 percent of all childhood cancers. Claire Broadhead, of California, was just one of those cases. She was diagnosed at the age of nine and beat it.

Claire’s mother, Stephanie, sat down and talked with TheBayNet.com about Claire’s battle, how it affected their family, and what she would share with other families who may find themselves waging a war against childhood cancer.

“In September 2011, Claire was playing travel soccer and she had a double header. I noticed she wasn’t moving for the ball and wasn’t quite herself,” Stephanie said. At the end of the weekend, Claire was honest with her mother, “She told me her legs hurt and she could hardly move.”

Over the next two weeks, Claire was fighting a low-grade fever. But it was a bicycle accident that finally led the family into the pediatrician’s office. “Claire crashed into a ticks' nest and when I was checking her for ticks I noticed a rash.”

Stephanie’s instincts proved correct. Something was wrong with her daughter. The pediatrician immediately acknowledged the rash as possible petechiae—a common symptom of leukemia. “She asked Claire to leave the room and told me we needed to go straight to Children’s National Medical Center,” Stephanie recalled.

Once they arrived, the doctors at Children’s were waiting for Claire. Stephanie’s fears were realized, “Her blood work came back positive for leukemia.”

The doctors wasted no time. Claire was admitted and more tests were ordered. After a bone marrow biopsy, Claire started chemotherapy immediately. “We didn’t tell her for weeks,” Stephanie explained.

As the weeks went on, the Broadhead family worked to keep Claire’s spirits up. “We did everything we could to make that hospital room a party—we had crazy times. Claire’s nurses and doctors were phenomenal and she had a lot of visitors and posters and cards.” Stephanie said.

Some of Claire’s biggest supporters were her classmates. Evergreen Elementary School held a card-making party and filled Claire’s hospital room with words of support and encouragement.

By November, Claire was in remission, but she was still far from the healthy young girl she was before the leukemia diagnosis. She had to continue treatments for two and a half years. “It was terrifying,” Stephanie said. “There was no rhyme or reason for it—it could be environmental factors, conditions of the body, or a combination of things.”

While back and forth between St. Mary’s County and Washington, DC, the Broadhead family relied on the help from friends and family. “Our son, Evan, was 12 at the time and was left home a lot because we were at the hospital with Claire. “Our friends, especially the soccer community, came out to help. Our neighbors also pitched in without us even having to ask.” Stephanie reflected. That’s when the fundraisers also started.

Claire’s soccer team hosted a benefit tournament each year. Since her diagnosis, the benefit has been named in Claire’s honor. The annual “Claire’s Cup” helps a different child each year who is battling a life threatening disease—raising $4,000 this past year.

During the following years, Claire also developed other illnesses, including Type I Diabetes, Celiac Disease, hypothyroidism and asthma. The prolonged chemo and steroid treatments, along with Claire’s genetic makeup, left her highly susceptible to autoimmune disorders.

Despite all of those diseases, Claire has made a full comeback. Now 16 years old, you’ll find Claire back on the soccer field (even in the snow). At Leonardtown High School she played varsity soccer both her freshman and sophomore years. “She kept pushing through and gained more strength and more stamina and one day she was just back to normal,” Stephanie said.

It was a long road to recovery, one that was marked by many highs and lows. One high, Stephanie recalls, was the support from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). “LLS offered to host an assembly for her class to help them understand Claire’s illness and treatment and how they could help support Claire during her recovery.

“The entire fourth grade class was there. The speaker broke down leukemia to the simplest terms and gave Claire time to talk and share her story.” Stephanie tearfully remembered the reaction from the students at the end of the assembly. “The speaker asked if there was anyone who wanted to ask Claire a question and every kids stood up.” They asked Claire questions, offered words of encouragement and embraced her during her battle. “There was a line across the cafeteria—it was a game changer.”

Stephanie wants people to know how much LLS supported their family. “They don’t just provide financial support, they provide education. The money raised for LLS helps research all cancers and they are the forefront of all cancer research.”

Looking back at this dark time in their family’s history, there are a few things Stephanie wants parents to know, should they find themselves in a similar situation. “It’s very hard at first. You’re sitting in meetings with doctors and trying to understand what’s going on.” Stephanie said allow yourself time to absorb the information. “Don’t pressure yourself. Let yourself adjust. Once you’re ready, get a day planner and start recording everything—symptoms, blood work, appointments—and stay off of Google.”

Stephanie said don’t worry about statistics and more than anything, don’t let it take time away from you and your family. “We did so many things and traveled so many places—we never let it stop us from having fun.”

Even when Claire was too sick to leave the house, the Broadhead’s found strength in their family bond. “We did a lot of binged watched shows together—but we did it as a family—we had fun and we prayed and we had faith,” Stephanie said.

It’s safe to say, Claire went through hell—but she came out stronger on the other side. “I didn’t think she’d ever look the same again,” recalled Stephanie. “She’s different than she was before. The things I saw her go through made her more mature. The biggest change I see is her compassion. She sticks up for kids who might be left out. She has drive—she’s not a normal teenager.” That drive is leading Claire on the path to become a pediatric oncologist to one day help other kids facing the same tough journey.

Stephanie has a long list of people who she’d like to thank—but the biggest thank you would be to the Southern Maryland community. “We have a strong, incredible group of friends. When Claire came home for the first time, our neighborhood was lined with people welcoming her home.”

You can now help other children, and adults, battling blood cancers like leukemia. The first annual Southern Maryland Kite Festival, Fly4aCure, is March 17 at the St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds—and Claire is the Student Ambassador for the event. All proceeds will go to LLS—and TheBayNet.com is a proud sponsor. Click here for more information about the festival and how you can donate to LLS.

Contact Joy Shrum at j.shrum@thebaynet.com

Interview with Claire

 

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