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Family grapples with double whammy


Beaverton mother and 3-year-old daughter cope with aftermath of being diagnosed with cancer

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Ruelle family has faced many challenges that others can only hope they'll never have to. Despite the health problems life has thrown at them, they face their issue everyday stoically. If there could be more emotionally crushing news than learning suddenly that you have stage IV metastatic breast cancer, Summar Ruelle managed to find it.

Exactly a week after Summar, 36, was told she had stage IV breast cancer that had metastasized and spread to her lymph nodes, ribs and several vertebrae, her 3-year-old daughter Sapphire was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Learning of what Summar calls the “double whammy” last September turned her family — who enthusiastically moved to Beaverton from Southern California in 2010 — upside down.

Body scans. Injections. Surgeries. Chemotherapy. Ultrasounds. Unemployment. Fatigue. Financial struggle. Mastectomy. Musculoskeletal pain. Even jettisoning the family parrot. You name it, the Ruelle family — which includes Summar’s husband, Pascal, and their 5-year-old son, Jayden — has been through it in the past eight months.

Despite the physically and mentally draining trials, tribulations and ongoing treatments, the mother and daughter are making the best of their situation. Drawing on the support of friends, extended family and community members — and not a little power of positive thinking — Summar and Sapphire keep their eyes trained on a long and healthy, if not entirely cancer-free, future.

If anything, the shared experience has deepened Summar’s and Sapphire’s already unshakable bond.

“We have a very unique mother and daughter relationship, because we’ve experienced something that not many families experience together,” Summar says from the toy-lined family room in the Ruelles’ Beaverton home. “We take each other’s Band Aids off and take each other’s medication. We’re insomniacs, so we comfort each other to go to sleep. She comforts me and says, ‘Mom, it’s gonna be OK. It’s going to take some time.’”

The Portland-based Children’s Cancer Association recently named Sapphire as one of 24 “Community Heroes,” children and teens who local medical professionals nominate to the association as exemplifying “courage, wisdom and grace” in the face of life-threatening medical challenges.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Summar Ruelle talks about how hard it has been since both she and her daughter Sapphire were diagnosed with different forms of cancer within a week of each other.

Sacrifices for family

The family’s ordeal started in late August 2012. Summar — five years younger than the standard age for regular mammograms for those with no family history — had lost nearly 70 pounds and felt a pain and lump in her left breast. A mammogram and ultrasound indicated an invasive ductile carcinoma. A positron emission tomography, or PET scan, further revealed the stage IV cancer had metastasized and spread to her lymph nodes, hip bone, ribs, collar bone and several vertebrae.

Multiple surgeries led to removal of her left breast, 17 lymph nodes, ovaries and fallopian tubes, the latter two procedures forcing an early menopause. As of her last full scan in April, Summar has a conditionally clean bill of health.

“Because it’s stage IV, they’ll never tell me my cancer is cured or in remission,” she says. “Once it’s metastasized, it’s something I’ll be dealing with the rest of my life.”

The cancer and treatment process made it necessary for Summar to walk away from her job at Columbia Sportswear, where she worked as an information technology business analyst.

“There have been a lot of losses. I’ve not been able to work, and I haven’t been able to parent to the capacity I would like to,” she says, noting Pascal also sacrificed his job in the motor sports industry to tend to his family. “Pascal is our caregiver.”

Of all that Summar’s endured since last fall, nothing could match the difficulty in learning her daughter’s leukemia diagnosis on Sept. 17. Her parents became worried when they noticed excessive deep bruising on little Sapphire’s arms.

“She’s always been a rough-and-tumble girl,” Summar says. “From going up the slide or riding her scooter, she would always come home with bruises on the back of her arm that would turn really black and blue.”

A huge bruise on Sapphire’s foot that looked like someone had stomped on it led to a visit to the pediatrician’s office. After he recommended blood work at Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, nothing could have prepared Summar and Pascal for the sign that greeted them when the elevator door opened.

“It said, ‘Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders,’” Summar recalls, tearing up at the painful memory. “You’re just totally blindsided.”

Once Sapphire was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — requiring immediate, extensive steroid-based treatments — Summar forgot all about her own health crisis.

“I wanted to entirely forget about the cancer I just found out about,” she admits. “I was ready to drop all my stuff. I had to get some serious talking to.”

Realizing the perils of abandoning her own treatment, Summar came to her senses.

“I realized I would just be putting myself in danger. I had to accept that and know my husband was fully capable of taking care of this,” she says.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pascal Ruelle plays with his daughter Sapphire, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. His wife, Summar, was diagnosed with breast cancer, causing financial hardship for the family.

Birthday break

Besides a lack of hair as a result of chemotherapy, Sapphire shows no signs of her ordeal as she smilingly frolics in the Ruelles’ family room. Despite complications with sleep and resulting fatigue, she’s tolerated her chemo regimen — delivered via Hershey’s chocolate syrup — rather well.

“Once they take (cancer) out, that’s pretty much a victory for most kids — the end of the journey,” Pascal says. “We have a love/hate relationship with the chemo. It’s doing its job, but it’s pretty brutal stuff. It’s killing all the cells, both good and bad.”

The family plans to take a break from such concerns on July 5, when Make A Wish Oregon will send Sapphire and her family to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., as part of its “Give Kids the World” program. Sapphire, who will turn 4 two days into her visit, will spend time horseback riding, swimming and cavorting with various Disney characters.

“It’s her first trip since September to go anywhere,” Summar says. “She’s been tied to the hospital. That’s huge. She’s super excited for this.”

While there are moments when she feels, as she told her mom recently, “getting better is too hard,” Sapphire more frequently finds a way to lift her and her mother’s moods with her irrepressible spirit.

“Sapphire calls us the ‘Superhero Cancer Fighting Girls,’” Summar says. “Sometimes she randomly tells me, ‘Mom, don’t forget we’re Superhero Cancer Fighting Girls. We’ve got to be brave and strong.’”

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sapphire Ruelle is battling leukemia, while her mother Summar has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The family has bonded closer than ever given the circumstances.

Sapphire honored as a community hero for her champion spirit

As one of the Portland-based Children’s Cancer Association’s 24 “Community Heroes,” Sapphire Ruelle was honored in a “Celebration of Courage” on May 22 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Southeast Portland.

The heroes’ portraits and individual stories will be included on the Wall of Courage, a traveling exhibit moving throughout Oregon for the next 12 months. The wall will be on display at Paradise Harley-Davidson, 10770 S.W. Cascade Ave., in Tigard, through June 30.

Two other heroes, Jolene Ables, 10, and Isabella Young, 5, both diagnosed with Wilms’ tumors, hail from Beaverton.

Diana Szymczak, marketing manager for the Children’s Cancer Association, said the organization’s panel works with staff at seven area health care providers, including Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, where Sapphire is being treated, to select inspiring “heroes.”

“They pick 25 children who they feel really exemplify courage and bravery and exhibit a positive influence on other kids in the hospital,” she says.

The association also pairs children with “Chemo Pals,” volunteer professionals who agree to spend time with young cancer patients as they undergo treatment.

Summar Ruelle says Sapphire’s first Chemo Pal, Emily, and her more recent companion, Kelly, have provided invaluable support for the little girl as the family copes with the burdens of a double cancer diagnosis.

“It’s been wonderful for Pascal and I to have a breather,” Summar says. “When the doctors come in to talk to us, we can concentrate because Sapphire is occupied with her Chemo Pal. They go all out. They just come in and are there for the kids.”