Mom, 5-year old daughter share cancer bond

- If Sara Parasa is nervous about coming back here to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, she doesn't show it. Cancer is no longer on her 5-year old radar screen.

"For her, it's definitely something that's in the past," Rachel Parasa, Sara's mother, says.

But Rachel and her husband remember the diagnosis 3 years ago that stopped them in their tracks.

"Acute lymphoblastic leukemia," Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Dr. John Bergsagel explains.  "Hers is highly treatable. When I was a child this type of cancer was 100 percent fatal."

Today, Bergsagel says, 90 percent of children with ALL survive.

But the price is high: 2 and a half years of chemotherapy.

Children with ALL are not considered cured until they're 10 years out.

Rachel Parasa was filled with questions.

"How do I tell a 3-year old that her blood has cancer," She remembers thinking.  "She doesn't know what cancer is."

A child life specialist helped her break the news to Sara, in language a 3-year old can understand.

"My immediate thought was, if she survived, if she made it through this, she would never remember not being sick," Rachel Parasa says.

She would have given anything to take her daughter's place, and bear the brunt of the chemotherapy.

"You think, 'Can I have cancer instead,'" Parasa asked herself.

A surgeon placed a port in Sara's chest, for the chemo and the steroids. Within weeks, Sara went into remission, but to get her to a cure, they'd have to push on for 2 more years of treatment.

"She was hungry all of the time, and she got that little chubby steroid face," Rachel Parasa remembers.  "And she was enraged about everything! She would get upset if you didn't call her by her full name, and call her Sara!"

The Parasas got through those first hard months, then got a break. Rachel was pregnant. 

But a week before the scheduled delivery, on the one-year anniversary of Sara's diagnosis, a problem.

"I noticed a lump in my left breast," Sara's mother says.

It was malignant.

"All of a sudden, we both had cancer together," Rachel Parasa says.

She had a newborn baby, a sick preschooler and now she, too, was ill, facing chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiation.

"It was absolutely overwhelming, and just utter disbelief," Parasa says.  "I wanted to be like, 'Nope.  I'm sorry. No, this is not a thing that can happen right now. We do not have time for this!'"

Soon Rachel Parasa had her own port, and her own chemo regimen at nearby Northside Hospital.

"It kind of made a connection for us," Rachel says.  "She would say, 'Mommy is getting chemo today.  Oh, I had mine last week. Mommy feels sick.  Yeah, I know. Chemo makes you sick. It's okay.'"

Today, five months after the mother and daughter finished their final treatments, a week apart, they're back for a checkup.

"I am cancer-free," says Rachel Parasa.

So is Sara.

"She had a fantastic checkup," Dr. Bergsagel says.  "She looks like the picture of good health."

 Cancer, Rachel Parasa says, is now part of their shared story, and it forever will be.

"Cancer is a journey," she says.  "It will always be something we will both think about."

But, Parasa says it's taught her how strong both of them really are.

"It gave me a much better understanding of what a little superstar she was," she says.

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