Fewer things are more frightening than hearing that your child has cancer. For two Northeast Ohio families whose children fought and survived cancer, the devastating diagnoses brought them together and showed them how resilient their children are. Both girls are now cancer-free and agreed to share their stories.
For Shamari Brazile, it began as an ache in her right pelvic bone.
The Cleveland Heights teenager had just finished a growth spurt, sprouting 4½ inches in a year. When her doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her pelvic bone, she underwent a few X-rays and MRIs and got a biopsy.
On March 6, 2018, Shamari got her answer. She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a childhood bone cancer that can strike between the ages of 10 and 20. She was sent to see an oncologist at University Hospitals.
Her treatment required three kinds of chemotherapy for about 12 weeks. In June 2018, she had surgery to remove the tumor, followed by 18 weeks of post-surgery treatment. The treatment made her constantly nauseous.
Her mother, Shari, says, “As a parent, you just feel so helpless, because you can’t make it better. To see your child go through such intense nausea” was excruciating. Not only could Shamari not leave the hospital, she was tethered to an IV pole.
While hospitalized, a social worker nominated her for Make-A-Wish, which grants life-changing wishes to critically ill children. The Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana chapter of Make-A-Wish (oki.wish.org) is the nation’s largest, and says it has granted wishes to nearly 10,000 Ohio children since 1983. Another 300 children are waiting for wishes.
When a Make-A-Wish representative visited her, “She asked where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do there,” Shamari says. She asked for a trip to Turks and Caicos Islands, a chain of coral islands southeast of the Bahamas. “I said I wanted to swim with dolphins, because dolphins are domesticated there.” She also wanted to swim with stingrays.
“Shamari is a very determined little girl,” her mother says. “When she gets something in her head, she is determined to go through with it.”
When told her wish would be granted, “It just brought such a smile to her face, because she had endured so much through the past year,” says Shari Brazile, who works in human resources at Cuyahoga Community College.
Now 14, Shamari finished her treatment on Dec. 11, 2018. At the end of June 2019, she had her six-month scan, and everything was fine. She has to go back every three months to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. She and her mother left for Turks and Caicos on Aug. 10 and returned six days later, about a week before she started the 10th grade.
“I was really excited to have a Make-A-Wish, because there was something good coming out of all I went through,” Shamari says.
Molly Keane looks more like a typical sixth grader than a cancer survivor.
But when the 11-year-old Bay Village girl was 7, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Cancer was attacking the white blood cells throughout her body, preventing them from fighting off infections.
“I remember her telling me that her foot hurt one Friday,” her mother, Kate Keane, says. Molly’s parents didn’t think much of it at first, “but by Sunday night, she wasn’t able to sleep because she was in such intense pain.”
Molly went to the doctor’s office, and X-rays showed she had no broken bones. After their family doctor took some blood tests, they were told, “We need to go to the emergency room in downtown Cleveland to see a more specialized doctor.”
“We were at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital with amazing nurses and amazing doctors who helped us with what we needed to do,” Keane says. “We were very fortunate that we were at the right hospital.”
“We went through about three years of chemotherapy,” with medicines injected directly into her body and pills every night and day. “She knew everything we knew as it was going on, maybe more. She was fighting the cancer, but she had a reaction to the medications she was taking.”
In February 2016, her liver shut down in reaction to one of her drugs. Another time, a scan showed a small clot in her brain. Molly was in the ICU for months dealing with that, followed by four months of treatments at home.
“She was only able to go to school a little bit, because if someone had the flu, we had to take her out so she wouldn’t get sick.” Molly couldn’t go to birthday parties because her immune system was so fragile.
Instead, she kept up with her classes from her hospital bed. “Our school system was amazing. She used an iPad to Facetime with her teachers, and she had tutors for three or four years.”
So when Make-A-Wish asked her what she most wished to do, Molly was enchanted. “Whatever you want to do, whatever your heart desires,” the Make-A-Wish representative told her.
“What if we built a waterfall with a pool in our backyard?” Molly asked excitedly.
When she finally decided on a trip to Aulani Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii, her parents decided to wait until her treatment was finished so she would have the strength and stamina for the trip. During her recovery, “as Molly was getting stronger and healthier, it was really great to have that to look forward to,” Keane says.
“When waiting in the hospital every single week, I always knew I had something to look forward to, and I think I had a better attitude because I was always looking forward to my wish,” Molly adds.
Finally, in February 2019, the whole family — including her father, James, and sister, Kellie, 13 — flew to Aulani Disney Resort for five days. “We were treated like royalty,” Keane says. “A super limo picked us up from the airport, and our airfare was covered by people who had donated their airline miles. We got to go on board early and meet the pilot. At the hotel, they upgraded us to a two-bedroom suite on the top floor. It was to a tee perfect in terms of every aspect.
“She went snorkeling at the beach, we went to an amazing luau, and all four of us went surfing for the first time.” And whatever Molly wanted to do, Kellie, got to do, too.
When asked to name her favorite part of the trip, Molly says, “Everything about it! Being treated special and being able to learn to surf in Hawaii!”
“She had a sense of pride in being able to take her family on vacation,” Keane says. “It was definitely the most exciting family vacation we’ve ever been on.
“She goes in every other month to check with a doctor, but she’s doing fantastic. She’s on the swim team and sailing team,” she adds.
Last year, Molly was named Girl of the Year by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for Cleveland and Akron (mwoy.org/northern-ohio/mwoy-clevelandakron).
“When Molly started the treatment, she was not what you would describe as a ‘tough kid,’” her father says in the video. “But she sure is now.”
5 Ways to Support Families who are Coping with Cancer
1. Feed them: Consider doubling the size of your dinner and sharing the extra with the other family. Order them food from or send them gift cards to their favorite local restaurant. Consider organizing a meal service like mealtrain.com, where different families can sign up to bring them food.
2. Ask the family for specific ideas on ways to help, such as giving them rides to and from the hospital, buying them groceries, house-sitting, watching their pets, watering their garden, cleaning their house, or doing their laundry. Families coping with illness can often feel overwhelmed by day-to-day chores.
3. Take up donations from friends, neighbors and coworkers, whether via a social media account or through a local bank, and let the family decide how best to use those funds.
4. Offer to take over communicating to non-family members with regular updates to a password-protected blog, so the family can focus energies on their ailing child.
5. Donate to or participate in childhood cancer-focused charities such as Make-A-Wish, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana chapter (oki.wish.org), VeloSano (velosano.org), which supports cancer research at the Cleveland Clinic, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation (stbaldricks.org), or Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer (alexslemonade.org).