Family grapples with double whammy
Beaverton mother and 3-year-old daughter cope with aftermath of being diagnosed with cancer
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 Summars 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 Summars and Sapphires already unshakable bond.
We have a very unique mother and daughter relationship, because weve experienced something that not many families experience together, Summar says from the toy-lined family room in the Ruelles Beaverton home. We take each others Band Aids off and take each others medication. Were insomniacs, so we comfort each other to go to sleep. She comforts me and says, Mom, its gonna be OK. Its going to take some time.
The Portland-based Childrens 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.
Sacrifices for family
The familys 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 its stage IV, theyll never tell me my cancer is cured or in remission, she says. Once its metastasized, its something Ill 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. Ive not been able to work, and I havent 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 Summars endured since last fall, nothing could match the difficulty in learning her daughters leukemia diagnosis on Sept. 17. Her parents became worried when they noticed excessive deep bruising on little Sapphires arms.
Shes 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 Sapphires foot that looked like someone had stomped on it led to a visit to the pediatricians office. After he recommended blood work at Randall Childrens 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, Childrens Cancer and Blood Disorders, Summar recalls, tearing up at the painful memory. Youre 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.
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, shes tolerated her chemo regimen delivered via Hersheys chocolate syrup rather well.
Once they take (cancer) out, thats pretty much a victory for most kids the end of the journey, Pascal says. We have a love/hate relationship with the chemo. Its doing its job, but its pretty brutal stuff. Its 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.
Its her first trip since September to go anywhere, Summar says. Shes been tied to the hospital. Thats huge. Shes 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 mothers moods with her irrepressible spirit.
Sapphire calls us the Superhero Cancer Fighting Girls, Summar says. Sometimes she randomly tells me, Mom, dont forget were Superhero Cancer Fighting Girls. Weve got to be brave and strong.
Sapphire honored as a community hero for her champion spirit
As one of the Portland-based Childrens Cancer Associations 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 Childrens Cancer Association, said the organizations panel works with staff at seven area health care providers, including Randall Childrens 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 Sapphires 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.
Its 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.Add a comment