I like to think that when my friend Rose-Ellen Eastman laughs in the kitchen of her home in the Northern Virginia suburbs, someone in Shanghai smiles.
Rose-Ellen has an electric, positive attitude and an irrepressible laughter that is much more than a quirky characteristic or personality trait, it defines her approach to surviving each day. This married mother of Samantha, Shannon, Jordan and Hayley doesn’t just laugh at life’s trials, she laughs through them.
In May of 2008, life was rolling along quite smoothly for Rose-Ellen, her husband Andrew, and their four happy girls. Then, over the course of just ten days, everything changed.
Rose-Ellen uses four simple words to color the unfolding story. “Life hit the fan.”
Rose-Ellen noticed that her six-year-old daughter, Shannon, wasn’t quite herself. The energetic child seemed sleepy and uncharacteristically unhappy. “I knew she was sick, but she couldn’t pinpoint it when I asked what exactly hurt.”
The Eastmans took her to the doctor several times without hearing clear answers. Finally, with Shannon still struggling, Rose-Ellen walked into her pediatrician’s office and announced, “Listen, we’re not leaving until we get a real diagnosis.”
It was immediately obvious to the doctor that things had changed. “We’re sending you for x-rays.” Rose-Ellen and Andrew prepared for the likelihood Shannon was about to bid farewell to her appendix.
Worried, but not scared, Rose-Ellen made calls to handle rides, babysitting and everything else that might be postponed. Little did she know they would walk through the hospital’s automatic doors that day, but not walk out for two weeks.
Tests revealed that sweet Shannon had a Wilms’ tumor so massive, they’d mistaken it for her abdomen. In fact, it was too large to initially remove. She would require chemotherapy, then radiation, then surgery to remove a kidney and what was left of the tumor.
In January of 2009, after a nine-month journey, Shannon was declared cancer-free. She’d lost weight, her color hadn’t yet returned, but the tumors were gone.
Then, just six weeks later, Rose-Ellen sensed something was wrong. “I kept thinking it was too early to be cancer again. But things were not right.”
Now both worried and scared, Rose-Ellen and her husband returned to the emergency room one afternoon and heard the words every parent most fears. “It’s back.” Shannon was re-diagnosed, but this time, 90-percent of the tumor was in her spine. She was in surgery at sunrise.
“We knew we were lucky with the first diagnosis. The survival numbers were good. But this was a different story.” Doctors explained that her survival odds were just 20 percent. Even if she did live, it was possible she’d never walk again.
That’s all she needed to hear. “No more numbers,” she told doctors. “I didn’t want to hear them. They didn’t matter.”
With the new diagnosis came news they needed a rare radiation only available in a few cities. So Shannon, her family and her optimistic laugh relocated to Boston and adjusted to the new normal. By Christmas of that same year, Shannon was once again declared cancer-free.
Miraculously, that glorious label still applies today.
“She’s clear,” Rose-Ellen told me recently. “But it will always be a struggle. Her remaining kidney is badly damaged and her system was thrown out of whack. She’s been bullied because of her size and we are all preparing for these redonkulously expensive growth hormones.” Even with that last fact, she can’t resist a laugh.
“But?” I ask, and Rose-Ellen takes a long sigh.
“She’s here with us and she has a great attitude.” Rose-Ellen also talks lovingly about her husband and their other daughters, plus her parents and seven siblings. “My whole family came through this better. We’re closer. Our faith is stronger. It’s strange, I know, but we’re just better because of it. We’re more understanding. It’s been a blessing in disguise.”
She’s quick to count other blessings, too. Near the top of her list is what she calls her “stamping friends.” Rose-Ellen has a large but surprisingly tight-knit network of friends who share her passion for making cards and crafts. When things have been tough in recent years, these friends have always come running. “I remember once when Shannon was so sick and I couldn’t go to (stamp) club that night. But they got together anyway and created a box of cards. It meant so much because it just for me. It was just … for … me.”
Even as she recalls the sweet story, again she can’t help but laugh. And why not? Everyone who meets her — whether around a table covered with ink and paper, in a crowded restaurant, or in a somber hospital waiting room — all agree. Laughter really is the best medicine.
For most of us, laughter seems to be a choice. But for Rose-Ellen, this self-described eternal 29 year old, it’s much more than that. It’s not how she lives. It’s who she is.
No, my friend isn’t asking for more trials, tests or mountains to climb. But, if they do come, she’ll be ready with family, friends, a smile and a laugh that all seem to say, “Bring it on.”
Oh, and if you hear someone laughing from a distance, say “Hello!”
It’s probably Rose-Ellen.
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