A little girl beat cancer, only to be tormented over the scars her brave battle left behind. After tearfully refusing to wear a tank top, wanting to cover her “scary scars” instead, her mother realized it was time to teach everyone a lesson.
Michelle Russell of Puyallup, Washington experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when she learned that her four-year-old daughter Claire had a tumor in the middle of her back, touching her spine. After being diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a very rare cancer that grows in the bones or soft tissue around them, Claire was in a fight for her life.
“She didn’t know how to ride a bike, had never stepped into a classroom, and spent most of her days in a tutu,” Michelle recalled, describing 4-year-old Claire when she was diagnosed with cancer. Michelle was forced to hand her baby over to surgeons for a surgery that was more than twelve hours long. “They removed four of her ribs, part of her spinal sheath, and fused her spine,” Michelle revealed, admitting that looking back at photos is hard.
One of her lungs collapsed after the surgery. Claire was placed on a ventilator and spent a week in intensive care. But, luckily, the little girl who often wore a tutu was a warrior. “What stands out most in my mind is her utter bravery,” Michelle said, describing the strength Claire mustered when she saw her mom cry. “She squeezed my hand, and whispered a tiny ‘I love you,'” Michelle recalled. “She didn’t want me to be afraid, she didn’t want me to be sad.”
Claire’s cancer treatment was brutal with seventeen rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries over the course of a year. But, Claire “simply endured” while suffering more pain than most adults see in a lifetime, her mom said. Her “beautiful head of blonde curls” were gone. And, she lost nearly all of her muscle mass, along with her childlike innocence, watching friends, who she met and loved, lose their fight against the same disease she was up against.
When Claire was finally declared in remission, Michelle took home “a frail, pale, bald, five-year-old, covered in scars.” Three years later, Michelle would realize that although Claire had won the war, she still had battles she had to fight, and one of them involved the scars the disease left behind.
“Though small for 8 years old, she is beautiful, healthy, muscular, outgoing, funny, a talented competitive dancer, and an honor roll student. She is an amazing overcomer. In many ways, she has healed,” Michelle said. But, one morning, the mom realized cancer had left Claire with a wound that was still very raw — one involving her emotions and self-image.
Claire refused to put on a tank top that she “loved” because a boy had told her she shouldn’t wear shirts that show her cancer scars. “He said they are scary,” Claire admitted. For a brief and admittedly irrational moment, Michelle wanted to give the boy some scars of his own, but she quickly came to a realization: He likely had no idea what Claire had been through.
It was time to teach everyone a lesson, starting with Claire. “The thought of what you must have gone through, to get those scars, is scary. Your scars are beautiful,” Michelle told her daughter, but Claire wasn’t convinced. Noticing the tears forming in Claire’s eyes, Michelle sat down, pulled her close, and said, “You have an incredible story. You should be so proud of what you overcame.” Sobbing, Claire said she just wanted to be “normal.”
Michelle told Claire to think about all the other little girls she had met who are fighting cancer and have scars too, then asked, “Do you want them to cover them up? Hide them?” Of course, Claire didn’t want them to be sad. “Did you know that by being proud of your scars, you’re inspiring them to be proud of theirs too?” Michelle furthered.
That seemed to do the trick as Claire smiled and put on her shirt, but the incident weighed on Michelle for days. Finally, she realized that the entire world needed a lesson, not just Claire. “Being beautiful isn’t about hair, makeup, or clothes. Beauty isn’t perfection,” Michelle declared, adding that “real beauty is raw.”
“Real beauty is a little girl who experienced unthinkable physical and emotional trauma and came out the other side stronger … with a deep appreciation of the fragility that is this life. A little body that was once physically battered by surgeries and chemo, and now dances gracefully. That’s beauty,” Michelle wrote in a post to Claire’s Instagram followers. “Her little body may be scarred, but it tells a story of perseverance and hope.”
Michelle Russell concluded with some moving words of wisdom: “I wish no child, or adult, would ever feel the need to cover their scars. If they do, I hope they remember that by not covering them, they are inspiring an 8-year-old girl to embrace her little body that beat cancer. Let’s teach our kids that imperfection is beauty. That bravery is beauty. That compassion is beauty.”