We had been in the emergency room for six hours. SIX HOURS! It was our third visit in two weeks. My 17-month-old daughter Atia was lying across my lap like a wet, limp rag. Her energy was gone and her light was fading. She was no longer the playful, spirited child she had once been. After a seemingly insignificant fall, she had been suffering high fevers and violent shaking spells, and had reverted back to crawling instead of walking. And once she started vomiting, we panicked.
As we sat there, I looked down at Atia and studied her angelic face, her desperate eyes pleading for help. My heart broke. I knew something was very wrong. Resting my head on my husband Steve's shoulder, I closed my eyes and cried.
Finally, after a light knock on the door, the doctor appeared, taking slow, deliberate steps as she entered the room. Her face was serious, but her eyes were full of compassion and regret. She cautiously began explaining that Atia's white blood cell count was alarmingly high, which can be a soft marker for leukemia. There was no clear diagnosis at that point, but we all knew it was serious; she needed to be hospitalized immediately.
As the doctor left the room, we sat in silence. Our lives were on the verge of chaos and there were no words. We were in shock and barely able to process what had just been revealed. We looked at Atia. She had no idea the magnitude of this discovery, but we knew she would soon suffer its consequences.
It would take several days and a multitude of tests to confirm, but in the end we were told, "Your child has cancer." Those four little words changed everything. We were utterly terrified. That was the worst day of our lives. It felt like a death sentence. I held Atia close and gently rocked her as the doctors explained that she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). As they began describing the next steps, their words faded into the background. It was all too much; I could not believe this was happening. AGAIN!
Two and a half years earlier, after testing a mysterious growth in my fingernail bed, I had been diagnosed with stage IIIb melanoma and given a 50 percent chance of survival. Unlike a typical melanoma, which manifests as an irregular mole, mine was a colorless tumor. To fight it, I had a partial finger amputation, my lymph nodes removed from my elbow and arm pit and a year of painful Interferon treatment (similar to chemotherapy).
I was 28 years old and newly married.
So many times I had asked, why me? Now, I finally understood. My own battle would become the foundation from which I would draw strength and courage to help my daughter wage hers.
Over time, Atia's complex treatment schedule became our new norm. We cherished each day and celebrated the small victories. We took nothing for granted, which included the support and love we received from so many.
There is nothing good about cancer. However, it does have the uncanny ability to bring people together-people whose paths, under normal circumstances, would never have crossed. Of course, our family and friends were on the front line offering assistance, but it was the kindness from strangers-those who would later become friends-that moved us even more.
Growing up we were told it is better to give than to receive, but I have learned there is a time and place for both. Those giving walked away with the same big smile and hearts full of joy as they had granted us.
Today, nearly two years after her diagnosis, Atia continues receiving daily chemotherapy. She has good days and bad days, but overall she is doing well. I have been in remission for five years and have recently partnered with Dina Manzo, former Real Housewife of New Jersey, to bring her foundation, Project Ladybug, to Chicago in Atia's name.
In the end, cancer has given my life a new purpose. What once devastated me now inspires me to help others battling cancer.