Things for the Ruelle family seemed to be right on track. Summar Ruelle, an Oregon mother of two, had a job as a business analyst with Columbia Sportswear. Her husband, Pascal, was also employed. Best of all, Summar had managed to lose 60 pounds of stubborn baby weight; she was in the best shape of her life.
But one doctor’s appointment changed all that.
It was late August of last year when doctors discovered a mass in Summar’s left breast. Further tests showed that Summar had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, and it had already spread into her ovaries and lymph nodes in her spine, ribs, hips and collar bone.
Life changed. Now facing decisions about having a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and ovary removal, Summar had to quit her job. But more than that, Summar was grappling with fears about not being around long enough to watch her children grow up.
“With a stage IV diagnosis, I never had the chance to be stage I, II or III,” Summar told Today. “My greatest fear was how long am I going to be around to live and enjoy my family, my parents, and my children?”
Still trying to come to terms with Summar’s diagnosis, the family received even more devastating news just one week later. Their daughter, 3-year-old Sapphire, had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“There was signs of something wrong, bruising and fevers,” Pascal told Today. “They took her in Monday morning, and I got that call at work and got the news.”
Each parent reacted to the news in their own way. For Pascal, it was anger at having to face possibly losing both his daughter and his wife. For Summar, the news was so devastating that she actually considered abandoning her own treatments.
“It was like my diagnosis became nonexistent at that moment,” Summar said. “I wanted to cancer everything – my surgery, my treatments. I wanted to forget all of that. I felt I needed to be there for her.”
Thankfully, Summar didn’t cancel anything. But it hasn’t been easy for the family; their entire life has been flipped upside down. Pascal had to take over the care of the children, including most Sapphire’s appointments and treatments. He took a medical leave, but eventually, he was let go from his job. The family now had to handle financial hardship on top of all of the stress of surgeries, cancer treatments and appointments.
“Along with cancer comes many losses, and primarily it’s the loss of your daily routine. He’s picking up a lot of tasks that I would typically do in the past. He took family medical leave and then was basically let go by his employer,” Summar told Today.
Yet, somehow, the family is managing to survive. Summar says it’s because they didn’t have any other option but to move forward.
“We were literally in surgery at the same time at two different hospitals. But it was necessary. We didn’t have the luxury of time. I couldn’t waste any more time and she couldn’t’ have delays. We had to both go forward,” Summar said. “People ask, ‘How do you do it?’ But we don’t have a choice. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s how things played out.”
During surgery, doctors removed Summar’s ovaries, one breast, and 17 lymph nodes. She’s gone through five weeks of daily radiation treatment, and is currently undergoing other forms of treatment. Risk of infection, fluid buildup (which must be removed regularly) have all become commonplace in her life. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that, for Summar, things won’t ever really go back to the way they were.
“People have an idea in their mind about what breast cancer is,” she said. “You get a mastectomy and then new boobs and then you’re fine. But that’s not it. At first, a lot of people didn’t understand what mets (metastasized breast cancer) was. They were like, ‘You’re going to beat this, Summar!’ and I had to educate them. I’m Stage IV cancer. I’m going to be in treatment the rest of my life.”
On the other hand Sapphire could have a chance at a full recovery. Already done with her first big wave of chemotherapy, she’s doing well. Her hair is finally growing back, and she’s going to be heading back to school next month. She and her entire family even got to take a trip to Walt Disney World, thanks to the wonderful people at the Make a Wish program.
But she still has another year and a half of “maintenance” treatment to go through, most of which will be given by her parents. Not surprisingly, Sapphire has gone through her own struggles and range of emotions. At first, she took all those feelings out on her parents.
“We would call it ‘roid rage,” Summar said. “At one point, she didn’t think her hair was going to grow back until she was an adult. She started crying and my mom explained that when she stopped her medicine, it would grow back. But that was tough for her, she asked about the hair a lot.”
Being away from school has also taken its toll.
“She isn’t allowed to be around school children [because of the possibility of illness and infection],” Summar said. “That’s been tough on her and it’s hard for her friends to understand, too.”
Thankfully, Sapphire has some wonderfully supportive parents. Mom and daughter stay in touch through FaceTime, and despite everything, Summar says that facing cancer together has brought them closer.
“Even though she’s 3, she gets this thing to a degree that she can comfort me and I can comfort her. She can totally go and see me get my blood drawn and my seroma drained and be supportive. She told me, ‘Mom, you go to all of my appointments, why can’t I go to yours?’” Summar said. “We have different cancers but we’re going through the same thing. We take some of the same medicines. We take each other’s Band-Aids off. We talk about how we feel and about what we want to do when we feel better.”
Thankfully, the family has received a lot of support. Friends and family help to ensure that Jayden, the Ruelle’s 6-year-old son, is cared for. They help shuttle everyone off to appointments and back and forth between two different hospitals. And the family is basically living off of Sapphire’s disability along with donations from family, friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers.
Summar has also found support through online social media sites, like Twitter. She’s also found a hospital group for women with metastatic cancer. But she has yet to connect with any other family dealing with issues quite like hers.
“Our scenario is so unique,” Summar said. “I haven’t found any moms in my position. There was another mother with a sick child, but then the child passed away. It’s really tough.”
Summar’s oncologist, Dr. Alison Conlin, says there is definitely a reason why the family has yet to find any other family going through a situation quite like theirs.
“For a daughter and mom to simultaneously be going through this and for a mom to be that young and have advanced disease from the get-go, that’s very rare,” Conlin told Today. “It all adds up to make it fairly unique, although I’m sure it’s not one of a kind, sadly.”
Unique or not, the family is grateful for all the help and support they’ve received. And just like when they received Sapphire’s diagnosis, both mother and daughter will keep moving forward. For Summar, that moving forward is going to include taking on a volunteer position. She’ll be coordinating fundraisers and awareness events for the research and support group, Metavivor.
“I’m excited about that,” she said. “I have something to focus on as I look toward the future. To give me more hope. I’ve always been a working woman and wasn’t really ready to stop working. This gives me an opportunity to feel like I’m making an important difference.”
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