Any problem is beatable if you've been to hell, back

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It seemed everything in my life was coming apart. Though the sky was clear, I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd been struck by lightning. Perhaps you know the feeling.

In the middle of the pressure and the chaos, I looked up at the calendar on my desk. Suddenly, I realized no matter what hell I might endure, I would survive.

This past week was special for my family. It marked the third year since daughter Amelia was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. What a journey it has been. It's a roller coaster ride I don't recommend for the faint of heart.

Amelia was 8 when her recurring nausea and headaches became acute. An MRI discovered a walnut-sized mass in the middle of her brain. The doctors said she was in a catastrophic condition. A flight by air ambulance to Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix had her on the operating table in hours.

The trauma of nearly losing our only child is impossible to describe. It simply changes your life forever. Our lives swirled before us as we sat silently in the waiting room overwhelmed by a cascade of anxiety and memories.

Surgery removed the tumor, but left an 8-inch scar on her head. We were told that with chemotherapy and radiation she had a high likelihood of fully recovering from the mixed-cell germinoma. The list of possible side effects was long, but there was no turning back, and the alternative was unthinkable.

When Amelia opened her eyes and thanked her overnight nurse for his kindness, our golden, curly-haired girl was back with us. She gradually recovered from the surgery. Although she would lose her curls to chemotherapy, would seem gravely tired from the brain radiation and would endure a seemingly endless string of lumbar punctures, MRIs and needle sticks, we believed the worst was over. After seven months in Phoenix, we returned home to yellow ribbons and hugs from family and friends. We thought Amelia was cured.

We were wrong.

Within weeks, Amelia began to complain of a pain in her back. At first we wrote it off to a pulled muscle associated with the many weeks of inactivity in the hospital. But each day the ache worsened. Our little girl, who had experienced so much pain at such a young age, tried to make the best of it.

Something was very wrong.

An MRI revealed a tumor on her upper spine. The cancer had relapsed.

The roller coaster of fear and anxiety carried us away once more.

Surgery removed the tumor, but the relapse was a terrible sign. Substantial chemotherapy and radiation hadn't killed the cancer. Her chances of survival shifted dramatically.

My wife and I tried to coach Amelia into focusing on beating the disease once more, but the fact is we were all tired. We sought out the cancer specialists at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and for the next few months we lived at the medical center and the nearby Ronald McDonald House. Amelia remained in isolation for nearly two months as the doctors fought the disease with high-dose chemotherapy and a stem-cell rescue. The pain she suffered was nothing short of torture.

She lost the use of her legs almost immediately. A short time later, it became obvious that her hearing had been badly damaged. When we finally brought her back home, our Amelia was a bald little angel with destroyed nerves and 50 percent hearing loss.

But that's what wheelchairs and hearing aids are for.

Through it all, we've met amazing nurses, doctors and therapists whose strength and professionalism are unmatched. We've been comforted by friends and family.

And we've learned to be grateful for each day, even the worst ones. If there's one thing childhood cancer has taught our family, it's that these are the good days, the ones that will fill the scrapbook of memory no matter what the future brings.

Next month, we travel to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to meet with the famed medical center's neurological specialists. It's our hope they will give us good news about Amelia's condition and recovery.

My dear Amelia, the angel God has placed in our care, I know I can survive anything as long as I have you.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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