It started with a bump on the right side of Sabrina Marciante's forehead.
"She told me she had fallen, so I didn't think anything of it," said her mother, Barbara Marciante.
When it didn't go away, they went to see a dermatologist a few weeks later. The doctor immediately took a biopsy.
Soon after, their heard an unexpected diagnosis. On the last day of first grade, in June 2011, six-year-old Sabrina was diagnosed with ALL, or Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
"We feel really lucky—we've heard stories of kids being sick for so long and families not knowing why. The cancer hadn't spread at that point," said Barbara.
When asked what life has been like the last 16 months, Sabrina responded quietly. "Hard," she said.
While her friends were going off to summer camp, she was going to Sloan Kettering's Pediatric Day Hospital in New York City. She would arrive by 7 a.m. to sit for several hours to receive chemotherapy treatments. She lost ten pounds in the first month and eventually lost her hair and ability to walk because she developed a nerve dysfunction disorder called neuropathy.
Sabrina also lost her entire second grade year at Lewisboro Elementary School—and a bit of her childhood.
"It was intense," said her mom. "People think of chemo side effects as vomiting and losing hair—if it was just that, it would be great."
At one point Sabrina's blood sugars were so low, she risked going into a diabetic coma. She had to be hospitalized overnight once or twice a month.
More than anything, during those times, Sabrina said she "wanted to go home."
What she missed most, she said earnestly, was learning. Second-grade teachers Regina Munz and Kathleen Nevin—along with art teacher Spencer Eldridge—tutored her at home a few times per week.
"It was really special," said Barbara Marciante. "In the beginning, she was too tired and sleepy and couldn't handle much. But by January, she could handle more and was able to stay on par with her classmates." In September, Sabrina rejoined her classmates as a third-grader.
"That felt good," she said. Her favorite subjects are social studies and science.
When asked how it felt to have so much attention centered on her, she answered honestly.
"Sometimes, it gets annoying," she said. But, she added, "it felt good" to have her friends visit, often bearing gifts and smiles and, according to her mom, genuine joy each time they saw her. The family also benefitted from the support and generosity of Take One—a cheerleading academy in Danbury in which Sabrina and her two older sisters, Jillian, 11, and Melanie, 13, are enrolled. The organization donated classes to the family and helped with carpooling the two older girls when Sabrina was too ill to attend.
The second year of treatment has been much better, said Barbara. Hospital visits for chemotherapy are twice per month and bone marrow and spinal taps are spread out to every three months for the next two years. Eventually, they will have monitoring checkups annually.
"Her status is 'clean,' and her doctors say her prognosis is great," she said.
Though Sabrina's journey to being cancer-free has not been an easy one, it's hard for an outsider to notice now, as a happy 8-year-old relayed how her family recently returned from a one-week, all-expenses-paid vacation to Florida and Disneyworld arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Sabrina's face lit up as she recalled catching a gecko by the tail, riding "all the scary rides" and staying at Give Kids the World, a getaway for families of children with life-threatening illnesses.
The family went through life-altering changes but has become closer, Marciante said. "My girls don't take things for granted. Don't get me wrong, they still argue, but as awful as it was, we are more sensistive toward each other now. What we got out of it, it's incredible—because we have a good outcome."
Because they feel so fortunate with their treatment, the Marciante's want to pay it forward.
They're raising money twice in the next two months for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society at a "Dance to Make a Difference" event on Sat. Oct. 13 at the Lewisboro town park and at the LLS annual walk on Nov. 3.
"A few years ago, the treatment was not as good. The prognosis rate wasn't as good. We are benefitting from the fundraising done by the society over the past ten years—and I hope ten years from now, other families will look back on our event as one that helped them," said Marciante.
"My goal is to have no more gold balloons," said Sabrina, referring to balloons that are lit up at Leukemia Lymphoma Society walks: Gold is in memory of a cancer victim, red is for supporters of individuals with cancer and white is designated to represent survivors.
Dance to Make a Difference runs from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. and includes Zumba demonstrations, a "live" game of Candyland, crafts, facepainting and raffles. Details are included on the flyer attached to this story.
Light The Night Walk is The Leukemia Lymphoma Society's annual fundraising walk to pay tribute and bring hope to people battling cancer. Hundreds of thousands of participants raise funds for lifesaving research and patient services. To contribute to Sabrina's team or participate in the walk on Nov. 3, click here.