This mother was inspired by her child’s insistence on living life to the fullest, despite multiple cancer diagnoses.
Posted in , Jan 24, 2020
It’s hard to believe that this past year, my beautiful daughter, Natalia, and I are again dealing with life-threatening challenges to her health. It doesn’t seem so long ago that our hopes and faith were tested the first time.
In 2007, Natalia walked her first runway at my sister’s college fashion show, not far from where we live in Harlem, New York. At 12 years old, my green-eyed girl was already five foot nine; she got her height from her father, from whom I was divorced. As I watched her sashay down the runway, I was stunned by how poised and confident she looked—she was a natural! “I’m going to be a model,” she announced after the show.
“We’ll see about that,” I told her. It’s good for a child to have a dream, but as the first college graduate in my family, I hadn’t gotten a doctorate in urban education and worked as a teacher so that my daughter could be a model. I relented a bit, however, and let my sister do a photo shoot with Natalia. They’d just begun putting together a portfolio in January 2008 when Natalia complained of pain in her right knee. It was so unusual for my happy-go-lucky daughter to complain about anything that I scheduled an appointment with an orthopedist.
The cherry blossoms were in full bloom that sunny April day I took Natalia to the orthopedist. After X-rays were done of her leg, the doctor placed them on a backlit white screen on the wall. He pointed to a spot about the size of a lime on the screen. “That lump you see on her thighbone is a tumor.”
I grabbed Natalia’s hand. “That can’t be right,” I said.
“Unfortunately, I’m 99 percent sure it’s malignant, a bone cancer called osteosarcoma. The good news is that it looks as if we caught it early. I’m referring you to Memorial Sloan Kettering.”
Natalia’s first and only question to the doctor was not “Will I live?” but “Will I be able to walk the runway again?” How could she ask such a foolish question? She didn’t shed a tear, but I broke down in sobs when we reached the parking lot. “Do you know something I don’t?” Natalia said. “Stop crying, Mommy. I’m not going to die!”
In the three days leading up to Natalia’s biopsy at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I prayed every waking moment. I sent out a mass e-mail to everyone we knew, asking them to join us in prayer for my daughter’s healing. My parents and sister came with us to the hospital. Her dad and other nana met us there. I peppered Dr. Morris, Natalia’s orthopedic surgical oncologist, with questions and suggestions. Natalia insisted on knowing everything, even the long-term survival rate for osteosarcoma, which was 70 to 75 percent if the cancer didn’t spread. Dr. Morris told Natalia she’d know she had cancer if she woke up with a bandage on her upper chest; that would mean they’d inserted a Mediport for chemotherapy. I didn’t let go of my daughter’s hand until the second she was wheeled into the operating room.
I walked down the hallway to the chapel and curled myself into a fetal position in a pew. “You know I always trust in you, Lord,” I prayed. “But the thought of Natalia being cut open, of losing her… I’ve never been so afraid! Please help me surrender this burden to you. Give me your peace.” I felt some small measure of release.
The nurse came into the chapel to bring me to Dr. Morris. When I saw the box of tissues on the table, I knew what was coming. “Natalia’s tumor is malignant,” Dr. Morris said. “We’ll start aggressive chemotherapy next week, then remove the tumor and reconstruct her leg three months from now.”
Anger and disappointment rose inside me, but I pushed my feelings down so Natalia would not see them on my face when she woke up in the recovery room. As soon as Natalia opened her eyes, she pulled away the sheets and looked down at the bandaged bump of the Mediport. I held my daughter in my arms, and all I could think was You can’t leave me. If you die, I will too.
Memorial Sloan Kettering became our battleground in the months that followed. Natalia’s chemotherapy regimen was brutal: three drug regimens to kill the tumor cells. Less than a month into Natalia’s treatment, her hair started falling out in clumps. I found her in the bathroom one morning, shaving her head into a baby Mohawk. It wasn’t long before even that little shock of hair fell out. To match my daughter’s look, I shaved off my own hair, and we held our newly shorn heads high all over town. Natalia named the leg with the tumor Will, telling everyone, “I will walk again!” She named the other leg Grace, for my favorite TV show, Will & Grace.
With each round of chemo, Natalia would say, “Let’s get this party started!” but by cycle 4, she was so weak that I had to carry her to the wheelchair to go to the hospital, and she slept as many as 38 hours at a stretch. I would lie next to her, pleading with God for a miracle as I listened to the melody of my daughter’s heartbeat. I felt helpless in the face of her intense pain, but after I set up a blog where we could post updates, I felt I was at least doing something useful. The blog became our bridge to friends and family. In mid-June, we shared the incredible news that Natalia’s scans were clear. The cancer wasn’t spreading.
In addition to removing the tumor and the affected parts of her femur and replacing it with an internal titanium prosthesis, the doctor would also need to do a knee replacement, she said. Will this ordeal ever end? I wondered. Yet Natalia remained as resilient as ever. On the day of her surgery, the rain poured furiously from the sky, just as it had the night Natalia was born. I took it as a sign that the operation would go well, which it did. Natalia finally came home after her string of surgeries, and before she was even out of her wheelchair, she insisted on taking my red stilettos with her to physical therapy. “My goal is to be able to walk in these heels,” she told the physical therapist. “Let’s get to work!”
Within five months, Natalia was back to dancing around the house. She ended up putting so much weight on the leg she called Will that it broke, along with her internal prosthesis. On January 12, 2009, nine months after her diagnosis, she finished the last of her agonizing 19 cycles of chemo. In mid- February, another reconstructive surgery was performed. She was left with an 18-inch scar.
The worst seemed to be behind us. Natalia had excellent health during her teenage years. I enrolled her in enrichment programs and continued to push her hard in the direction of academics, but she remained as obsessed with modeling as ever. At a parent-teacher conference her sophomore year, Natalia’s teacher told me she was distracted and not turning in her homework. When I got home that night, I found her practicing her runway walk down the length of our living room instead of doing schoolwork. “Listen,” I told her, “you’ve got to let go of this modeling idea. You’re going to need a good job with security and a stable future.”
Natalia looked me straight in the eye. “I understand that a regular job can give you security,” she said, “but what about joy? You know how much I love you, Mommy, but I’m not going to live a life half-lived, not even for you.”
It was as if we were from different worlds entirely. Oh, Lord, I asked, why did you give me such a strong-willed child? I put Natalia on a weekly contract to keep up with all her schoolwork; if she failed to do so, her privileges for the weekend, such as going out with friends, were revoked. Her academic performance dramatically improved, but she still insisted on modeling in school and community fashion shows.
Natalia made her official debut on the runway at a New York bridal show when she was 18. I watched as she glided down the catwalk in a sparkling long white dress. Not only was she breathtaking, but she radiated pure joy and comfort in her own skin.
Suddenly I understood: This beautiful dream was what had sustained her through all the grueling trials of her illness and recovery. I clapped my heart out for my daughter, bursting with pride that she had fought tooth and nail to reach her goal.
While attending college, Natalia did more fashion shows and photo shoots, although she didn’t sign with an agent until she was 23. That’s when her career really took off: She walked in several shows at New York Fashion Week and was featured in Elle and Vogue magazines. She appeared on Season 17 of Project Runway on Bravo TV. As a way to advocate for inclusion and body positivity in the fashion industry, she insisted that the scar on her leg never be airbrushed away in photographs.
Then in January 2019, we found ourselves back at Sloan Kettering. Natalia was diagnosed with renal medullary carcinoma, a rare cancer of the kidney. Her right kidney was removed, and in March she was declared cancer-free. We were ecstatic. But our happiness was short-lived. In mid-October, the doctors informed us that the cancer had returned, this time in her lungs. Natalia decided that after such a horribly draining experience 12 years ago, she would not undergo any chemotherapy. Instead she embarked on nontraditional treatments. She said, “This is what God is telling me, Mommy.”
In the years since Natalia became ill the first time, I’ve learned that God gives me peace in my heart when I’m making the right decision and anxiety when I’m not. Back then, I spent my days drowning in fear and anxiety, unable to fully surrender to the mystery of the unknown. But this time, as I fully support Natalia in her decisions, I am at peace. I can let go because God made my daughter so strong, so grounded in faith. Her spirit remains unbroken, and so does mine.
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