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“It was just wonderful. We were just so far away from everything that we knew,” mom Summar Ruelle told Yahoo! Shine about the trip earlier this month. "This was something that we all looked forward to, because it's been so difficult for us, with months and months of just going to doctor appointments and having several hospitalizations."
The overwhelming journey for the Ruelle family, of Beaverton, began last September, when Summar, 35 at the time, was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer after she found a lump in her breast. Doctors told her the cancer had already spread to her bones and lymph nodes. Amazingly, she kept her spirits and energy high, even running the annual Race for the Cure in Portland just over a week later, with a 100-degree fever.
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But then, just 11 days later, after noticing deep and worrisome bruises on their then-3-year-old daughter Sapphire's arms and legs, Summar and her husband, Pascal, were told that the little girl had leukemia.
After receiving that double blow, the Ruelles—who also have a 6-year-old son, Jayden—have had to adjust to a new and trying reality that includes chemotherapy, surgeries, pill regimens, body scans, financial struggle, and a never-ending series of difficult conversations.
“[She] and I have a very unique mother-and-daughter bond because of our cancer,” Summar told KGW Portland this week. “We talk about cancer all the time. We’re ‘superhero cancer-fighter girls.’” Sometimes, she added in an interview with the Beaverton Valley Times last month, "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.’”
Sapphire’s prognosis is “excellent,” according to her doctor, Jason Glover, of Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland. But Summar, who has been given only a temporary clean bill of health following a recent surgery, is cherishing each moment with her family after having been forced to leave her job as an IT business analyst at Columbia Sportswear last year.
"We live scan by scan," Summar told Shine. "Being stage four, I'm going to be taking medication for the rest of my life. I'm going to be done when I die."
Luckily, supportive friends and family members have surrounded the Ruelles, helping with everything from emotional comfort to childcare and fund-raisers, which have included parties, concerts, and the creation of a $90 “Strength” heart necklace in gold or silver, and $5 pink-and-white bracelets, the proceeds of which go directly to the family.
Pascal, who left his own job as a marketer of motorcycle parts, has been the family’s main caretaker. “There’s been days when I just wish I could take both their sicknesses and put them in me to deal with them myself,” he told KGW. “That would be easier.”
Summar has been dealing with the overwhelming illnesses by relying on both traditional and alternative treatments, focusing on her children, and by sharing the family’s ongoing story on her blog and on her Caring Bridge journal, which she said is "therapeutic"; readers can make donations through both sites.
“For me, a lot of it is bringing awareness,” when asked how she felt about going so public with her family's story. “People don't have an understanding of how cancer affects families—and not only immediate family." Sapphire's two sets of grandparents, for example, are "absolutely heartbroken," Summar said, adding that there's also an abysmal lack of funding for research and treatment of metastatic breast cancer, as well as a lack of public awareness when it comes to the sheer amount of care that cancer patients need.
"For example, it was horrid figuring out how to get these medications into Sapphire," she said, explaining that, for her daughter's daily oral chemo dose (which comes on top of steroids, antibiotics, IV chemo and lumbar punctures at the hospital), she and Pascal grind up the pills and give them to her in Hershey's chocolate syrup. "It's not an option. It's a life-or-death situation."
But the biggest family support recently was that trip to Disney World. "Sapphire's big thing she wanted to do was to meet the princesses, and she got to meet all of them," Summar said. "That was just—I can't tell you—it was a teary moment for me. [Belle] told her she's even braver than her hero, the Beast. It made her feel important and it reinforced how strong and brave she is. I get choked up just thinking of it."
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