How one girl is trying to tune out cancer
By Jeannette Cruz
GCU News Bureau
Liana Gold, who celebrated her ninth birthday last week, smiles after she is through with another session of chemotherapy. She grabs her knitted purple beanie and the new iPad she got for her birthday. She’s ready to go home.
6th Annual GCU Foundation Run to Fight Children’s Cancer
What: A 10K run, 5K run/walk and a quarter-mile cancer survivors walk to raise awareness of pediatric cancer and funds for Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Children’s Cancer Network.
When: 7 a.m.-noon Saturday
Where: On and around GCU’s main campus, 3300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix
Does she like these hospital visits? “Sometimes,” she says. Other times, she misses her friends and teachers.
Liana is one of the many children being helped by Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Cancer Network — the kids who are the reason the Grand Canyon University Foundation Run to Fight Children’s Cancer will be staged Saturday morning for the sixth time. Their stories have one major thing in common: A cancer diagnosis, especially in a child, invariably is shocking. Liana’s mother, Mazal, recalls how the family’s life was turned upside down in just a matter of days.
“I’ll never forget,” Mazal says. “Liana arrived home from school on Oct. 28 not feeling well and after we took her to the hospital, the doctors prescribed Benadryl because they believed that what she had was hives. They told us we should try it for a week to see how she responded to it. I remember they told us to wait.”
As the days progressed, however, Mazal noticed her daughter lacking strength and growing pale. Her face had even begun to swell, and Liana complained about falling asleep during class. Finally, the school nurse called Mazal and told her Liana needed to go see a doctor again.
But doctors failed to spot the disease until Mazal insisted that they draw blood.
“It took us a total of one week and one day to figure out what was going on, and that’s because I kept pushing for it,” she says.
As Liana weakly sat in the doctor’s office, Mazal and her husband, Alexander, would have to accept the difficult news from the doctors: the 8-year-old had leukemia.
Liana was rushed to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where tests confirmed the disease. Because of it, her white blood cells had been elevated to an extreme.
“Looking back, we didn’t know if this was the end of things or the start of a new life,” Mazal says. “Everything happened so fast — schedules for surgery, a bone marrow biopsy, the spinal tap – and during all of this, I had no one to talk to, and if I did, I just couldn’t. Emotionally, I just crashed.”
Liana also didn’t want anyone to know what was going on with her. Instead, she asked her mother to allow only her father and her siblings, Michael and Emily, to be by her side. She declined any other visitations. Then, when she was released from the hospital after one week, she confined herself to her bedroom.
Mazal, a devoted stay-at-home mom, said that if there was ever a time she felt she most needed to support her children and family, it was then.
“Cancer changed my life in a lot of different ways, but can I explain how it changed my life? I don’t know,” she says. “I can say, ‘You become aware,’ but aware of what? A lot of people ask me what they’re supposed to look out for, but there is nothing. Cancer just hits you.”
One of the worst parts about facing cancer was having to experience Liana going bald, Mazal says. So before Liana began losing her hair, Alexander and Michael shaved their hair off. Then Liana decided she would do it, too.
“She had beautiful, long hair, and because we didn’t want her to get scared as the hair fell off, we asked her to trim it,” Mazal says.
But she does not forget how Liana would not look at herself in the mirror or the way she cried hysterically as her dark locks fell on her lap.
“She would say that she felt different, and all she wanted was to feel like her old self again,” Mazal said.
As she went on with her life, Liana would soon begin to accept the changes — the hair trimming, the treatments, the hospital visits. But she would also find new pursuits, including teaching herself to play the piano, collecting hats and painting with her new friend Kim.
Kim Froehle is a child life specialist at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and she understands what Liana and hundreds of other children who arrive at the clinic are going through.
“Child life is a big part within these families’ care,” Froehle says. “We get parents to laugh again and giggle again, and they start to see their child emerge again with their emotions in a good way. We have a chemo duck that can teach them about their report and have different steps that they follow plus playrooms and play zones, where they get to paint pictures — all positive things that distract them from having to sit in an infusion area for chemotherapy for six hours.”
Although Liana still wishes she wouldn’t have to miss school (well, sometimes), she says she’s happy to have Froehle to get her through the days.
“I don’t know how I would get through any of this without her,” she says. “When Liana went back to school again, Kim was there to talk to her classmates about cancer so that it wouldn’t be awkward for her. Now, because of all the amazing things Liana has to say about her, her siblings also can’t wait to meet her.”
Froehle says that although she doesn’t understand why cancer keeps happening, she does understand the emotional journey and her role as the middle person between doctors, nurses and patients.
“This is a tough environment sometimes for them,” she says. “They’re scared, so I have to think about how I can make this positive for them.”
Liana is to continue treatment for two more years. In the meantime, Mazal says she and her family are focusing on one thing: “One day all of this will be over and it will just be one big dream — or I guess you could call it one big nightmare.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.