January 31, 2019
When she was just four years old, had yet to learn how to ride a bike, had never stepped foot in a classroom, and spent most of her days in tutus, according to her mom, Claire Russell was diagnosed with bone cancer, or Ewing’s Sarcoma. Her mother Michelle Russell of Puyallup, Washington recently shared the story of her daughter's incredible fight on Love What Matters.
"Her tumor was located in the middle of her back, between two ribs, touching her spine," Russell wrote. "Treatment was brutal. Seventeen rounds of chemotherapy over the course of a year. Multiple surgeries, including the removal of four ribs, part of her spinal sheath, and a spinal fusion. Finally, she was declared in remission."
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One year ago today I handed my baby over to surgeons for what would be a 12+ hour surgery. They removed four of her ribs, part of her spinal sheath, and fused her spine. Looking back at these pictures is HARD. Shortly after the surgery one of her lungs collapsed and she was placed on a ventilator. She was in the PICU for a week. I ran on pure adrenaline, I don't think I slept more than an hour straight that week. What stands out most in my mind is her utter bravery. I remember sitting on her bed, holding her hand and just staring, being in awe of this four year old girl who's strength was so incredible. I started to cry, and she squeezed my hand, and whispered a tiny "I love you." I will never forget that moment in all my life. She didn't want me to be afraid, she didn't want me to be sad. She never once asked "why," she simply endured. When you have children, you expect to shape them, teach them, you aspire to be their hero. Instead Claire has taught me more in the last year than I ever learned in my 26 years before her. She is my hero. I thank God she is in remission, I thank Him for blessing me with such an inspiring little soul, and I pray that she lives a long, healthy life. I pray that someday she has a child and is able to feel the love I feel for her. "A hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." 💛💛💛
That was three years ago. "If you met my daughter today, this story would likely shock you," Russell wrote. "Though small for 8 years old, she is beautiful, healthy, muscular, outgoing, funny, a talented competitive dancer, and an honor roll student. She is an amazing overcomer. In many ways, she has healed."
But Russell shared that Claire has, more recently, had to fight a different kind of battle—with her emotions and self-image. "Every so often the realization that she is still here, while some children are not, weighs heavy on her brave heart," Russell explained. "Then, a few weeks ago, on a rushed morning, I threw her shorts and a tank top and asked her to get dressed. She quietly asked me for a different shirt. Oblivious and in a hurry, I said, ‘Why? You love that one, just put it on, we gotta go…’"
Claire's response: "A boy at camp…told me I shouldn’t wear shirts that show my scars. He said they are scary."
Russell wrote that she "debated finding said boy and giving him some scars of his own…but quickly realized this boy likely had NO IDEA what this girl has been through."
"I think what he meant, was that, the thought of what you must have gone through, to get those scars…is scary," she told Claire. "Your scars are beautiful."
The 8-year-old wasn't convinced and teared up.
"I sat down beside her and pulled her close," Russell shared. She told her daughter, "You have an incredible story. You should be so proud of what you overcame," to which the little girl replied, "I just want to be normal."
"I want you to think about all the little girls like you that you have met, who are fighting cancer like you did, who will have scars like you…do you want them to cover them up? Hide them?" Russell asked Claire.
She said, "No, I don't want them to be sad."
Russell then asked her, "Did you know that by being proud of your scars, you’re inspiring them to be proud of theirs too?" which did the trick. "A small smile," Russell wrote. "She reached over and grabbed the shirt, and walked out of the room. A little taller, in my eyes."
Soon thereafter, the proud mom contacted her friend Dionne Kraus, a professional photographer in Oregon. Her goal: "Let’s show Claire, and the world, that being beautiful isn’t about hair, makeup, or clothes. Beauty isn’t perfection," she wrote. "Real beauty, is…raw. Real beauty is a little girl who experienced unthinkable physical and emotional trauma, and came out the other side…stronger, and with a deep appreciation of the fragility that is this life. A little body that was once physically battered by surgeries and chemo, and now dances gracefully. That’s beauty. Her little body may be scarred, but it tells a story of perseverance and hope."
Kraus ended up creating a stunning series of shots of the 8-year-old on Ruby Beach in Washington state.
Russell's moving conclusion: "I wish no child, or adult, would ever feel the need to cover their scars. If they do, I hope they remember that by not covering them, they are inspiring an 8-year-old girl, to embrace her little body that beat cancer. Let’s teach our kids that imperfection, is beauty. That bravery, is beauty. That compassion, is beauty."
You can follow Claire's journey on Instagram.