Receiving a cancer diagnosis for your child is a parent’s worst nightmare. But when Cora Morgan, 34, learned that her daughter, Harper, 4, had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in November of 2016, she found unexpected support in a strange place — with a neighbor who lived close by.
It turned out that another local mother, Korinne Roberts, also had a four-year-old daughter diagnosed with the same exact type of leukemia just eight months before.
Roberts, 30, a stay-at-home mother of four and Morgan’s neighbor in the small town of Lehi, Utah, had gone through the same emotional vicissitudes when it was discovered that her daughter, Livvi, had ALL in March of 2016. Remembering how helpful it was that she had another parent to reach out to during that difficult time, she didn’t hesitate to give her contact info to a mutual friend who connected her to the Morgan family. The two women started texting the very evening that Harper was diagnosed.
“Korinne sent me a message that night asking what she could do to help and shared some of her experiences with Livvi,” said Morgan. “She said that the first 30 days are the hardest and that it will feel overwhelming and impossible…It gave me a glimmer of hope. I thought, If she did this with four kids, I can too!” The mothers live just down the road from one another, and that text message was just the beginning of an unexpected virtual friendship.
Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cells). ALL is the most common form of childhood cancer. General signs and symptoms of ALL include fever and bruising, and a medical diagnosis is made based on testing blood and bone marrow. Treatment usually involves chemotherapy. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 2,700 children are diagnosed with leukemia in the United States each year.
Having another mom who lived so close and was in the same boat helped Morgan immensely, particularly when it came to medical questions and concerns. Early on in the treatment process, she wondered if the way Harper was reacting to the steroids that were part of her treatment was normal.
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“Through the holidays, Korinne and I texted back and forth,” said Morgan. “Korinne had warned me that I would lose my little girl for a while and wow, was she right! Harper became angry and withdrawn. Physically, she changed as well. Her stomach was so large, she could not sit up on her own. One late night from the hospital I texted Korinne asking how big Livvi's stomach got during treatment. She sent me photos of Livvi during the first month and I was so relieved! I quickly recognized that the weight gain and stomach swelling were normal.”
The women kept up their supportive texts but did not actually meet in person until January during a local KSL-TV interview at Morgan’s house a few days before a public bone marrow registration drive held in Harper and Livvi's honor. The drive was managed by DKMS, an international non-profit that pairs blood cancer patients with matching donors.
The TV station caught their first meeting on camera. “Honestly, I felt like I already knew her so well,” said Morgan. “It was like catching up with a close friend. We hugged and let the girls play for a bit while we chatted on the couch and exchanged stories.”
“I was a little emotional meeting both her and Harper for the first time,” said Roberts.
While the girls do not require bone marrow transplants as part of their treatment, many people with a blood-related illness require lifesaving marrow from a person outside their own family. The women hoped to “pay it forward” by lending their support to the event. “Cora’s family ran the blood drive,” said Roberts. “They were there for most of the day handing out swab kits and getting people registered. We advertised a lot for the event leading up to it, blasting our community and personal social networks.” A simple cheek swab is all it takes to register to potentially save someone’s life.
But the truly remarkable moment for both mothers was seeing their girls meet.
“Liv is very shy so I wasn’t sure how she would do with Harper, especially with the camera on her, but they quickly started playing with Harper’s dollhouse,” said Roberts. “We left them alone to have their own little conversation and the mic picked up what they were saying. It caught them talking about their treatment. Harper even talked about the ‘sleepy medicine’ that they get before they get put under for their lumbar punctures.”
And while the girls both receive treatment at the same clinic, Livvi goes on Tuesdays and Harper goes on Thursdays, so they don’t often see each other — but they have still found ways to stay connected. “During one of Livvi’s appointments Harper was in-patient, being treated for an infection, so we had balloons and a treat sent up to her,” said Roberts.
Roberts advises other parents going through the same thing to try and connect with another parent.
“It’s so important to have someone that you can lean on when times are hard,” she said. “I had someone that I was able to reach out to. She knew exactly what I was going through and helped me see that some of the things that I was worried about were completely normal in that terrible situation. The answers to my questions and moral support were so important to me in those first few months after the diagnosis when treatment is especially hard. I hope that I am able to help Cora the way that my friend supported me,” she said.
“I truly believe that there is no way I could have made it through this far without Korinne and the other cancer moms,” said Morgan. “Reach out. Surround yourself with those that give you strength. You don’t have to do this alone.”