Kristin Seward | Lens of Hope

Olivia hugging her dog
Photos and story by: Kristin Seward | Lens of Hope

It was a Sunday morning last May when Olivia woke up with a low grade fever and an unusual rash on her chest and neck. Though her parents were slightly concerned at first, their worry quickly escalated when she was unable to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. They took her to KidMed later that afternoon where she was initially screened for mono, but instead her blood panel revealed that her white cell count was nearly 20 times higher than it should have been. They were sent immediately to Children’s Hospital at VCU and by the time they arrived and more blood tests were performed — it had already doubled.

Twenty minutes later, they were told it was leukemia — an aggressive type called AML, which comes on extremely quickly and then progresses rapidly. She was admitted to VCU that same night, and her treatment began almost immediately — four intense rounds of inpatient chemo, each lasting 30 days.

While Liv was confined to a tiny hospital room for a month at a time — sleeping her days away and waking to use the bathroom or sometimes throw up — the world around her continued on. Her fourth grade year came to a close and pools opened. Summer came and went, friends went to birthday parties and left for vacations.

Her fifth grade year started last September, but instead of packing a backpack full of new supplies, she once again packed up her hospital bag for her final round of inpatient chemo.

Two photos of Olivia in the hospital cuddling with two support dogs

Last October, she finished her final month-long treatment and left the hospital for the last time. Doctors and nurses lined the hall and cheered as she rang the bell and all but ran toward the door and back to a life she recognized. Except it wasn’t.

Though she’s still the same sweet girl who loves horses and animals and playing with her friends, she isn’t as carefree as she used to be, and she knows this intrinsically.

It’s a subtle yet marked difference that’s not as obvious as her bald head and port scar, but just as valid.

“But her hair has grown back, she must be okay now.”
“But she’s back in school, she must be so happy.”

Yes — and no. Because for a girl who simply wanted to fly under the radar and hang out with her close circle of friends, coming back in the middle of her fifth grade year as “the girl who had cancer” or “leukemia warrior,” wasn’t ever on her agenda.

Social life is precarious enough without also having to grieve the life you were supposed to have.

Olivia is holding a hamster
Photos and story by: Kristin Seward | Lens of Hope

“Before all of this, I never used to get a whole lot of attention, but now all of the sudden I’m everyone’s hero.”

Her tone wasn’t boastful, but it wasn’t jaded either. It was just pure and unfiltered 10-year-old honesty. A quiet declaration on a random Thursday afternoon by a kid who’s simply learning to be a kid again.

These are the parts of childhood cancer that often get overshadowed by a collective relief and celebration because their treatment is over and the cancer is gone. While that may be true and while the sentiments are genuine, of course, the reality is that a clear line has been drawn in the sand separating the life they had before cancer and the life that greets them when they walk out of the hospital doors for the last time.

Olivia with long hair
Photos and story by: Kristin Seward | Lens of Hope

Liv tackled a rare and aggressive cancer; her strength is undisputed. But it also takes a certain bravery — not just in the face of cancer but also on the cusp of adolescence — to name something that feels awkward, to see a label and quietly shrug it off like an outfit that just isn’t really “you.”

This, too, is courage.