Mars is far from shy. She floats around the world with an air of sweetness and a broad smile. When asked what she likes, she responds confidently: Oogie Boogie (the main antagonist in The Nightmare Before Christmas), spiders and the color pink. If there’s an outfit that combines all three of her loves, even better. She knows who she is and what she wants—and her uniqueness is freeing. “I never want her to stop being her. She’s a rock star,” says her mom, Marissa.
In early 2019, Mars developed a spot on her back where her clothing tag touches. It was purply in color and raised in certain places. At first, her parents thought she slept on a toy. But the spot was substantial, and it was not going away. And then more spots surfaced.
Marissa and her husband, Jim, brought Mars to Phoenix Children’s, where she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at just 2 years old. Now, at age 5, Mars is in the maintenance phase of cancer treatment. At this stage, there are no detectable cancerous cells in Mars’ body.
The past three years were a time of darkness, perseverance and transformation for Marissa. She opens up about this difficult time.
Marissa on discovering her daughter has cancer
“My husband and I nearly dropped to the ground in devastation when we found out. It was the worst news a parent could hear. I was very angry. I wanted someone to blame. But it was nothing anyone did. Mars was behaving like everything was perfectly fine. You never would have known she was sick.”
Marissa on overcoming fear and darkness
“It really became real when Mars started to lose her hair to the point where we decided to buzz-cut it. This meant something different to our family because my husband’s mother passed away a few years before from brain cancer. We were active in her care throughout that time, and my husband shaved her head for her. So when we shaved Mars’s head—it was devastating for us. Mars didn’t like it, either. She had no idea what was going on at the time. She was like, ‘What is that? That’s loud.’
“Or like the time when we brought home books from the hospital. She picked out one of the books for me to read before bedtime. I open it up; I start reading it. The story is about fairies, and one fairy doesn’t have hair, but is still special and has magic. By the time I realized what was going on, I was full-fledged crying. You never know when grief is going to be triggered like that.
“My husband stepped up and became a super dad. When I crumbled under the pressure of it all, he was always there to make sure Mars was where she needed to be. When the impossible must happen, he’s there to somehow puzzle-piece everything together and make it beautiful. He’s an artist. There’s a level of beauty he brings to everything.
“I went through some darkness in this whole process. I had to do a lot of work on myself. I got sober in the middle of this whole thing because I was falling apart. I’ve been sober almost 20 months now and we are living our best life.
“Telling Mars’ story involves some ugly details and that’s scary. But on the same hand, I feel like it’s probably something that a lot of parents go through when their child has a potentially terminal illness. So maybe it’s not such an ugly detail. And when you’re ready to talk about it, you think, ‘Maybe this could help somebody.’”
Marissa on Mars’ resilience
“Mars is tough. We had her port removed a couple of months ago and I was preparing myself for the worst. And she was straight-faced, like it was no big deal. I was like, ‘What happens now?’ I wasn’t completely ready to be on my own. The Phoenix Children’s staff said I can keep coming in once a month to ask all my questions. For example, I asked, ‘How can we get life as close to normal as possible before she goes to kindergarten?’ I have had my hand held a little bit, and I have been given knowledge I did not previously have, which is incredible.
“I have watched Mars overcome much adversity in a short period of time. We cannot even begin to understand how resilient children can be. Things that can completely ruin an adult, children are able to see as just a speed bump and then move on. I was so scared she was going to miss out on so much. And she hasn’t skipped a beat. I want her to shine and take over the world. I love parenting her.”
Mars has made great progress since her diagnosis. She comes to Phoenix Children’s monthly for an exam and bloodwork. She was a size 2T for the longest time, and recently she quickly grew into a 4T. Her hair is growing back with big, luscious curls. “She’s thriving,” says Marissa.
Marissa describes her personal journey through it all as an “evolution.” In the beginning, it was difficult for her to cope with the wave of emotions. But she accepted support and she advises parents in similar circumstances to do the same. “Talking to someone about it all—as much as I thought it wouldn’t—absolutely helps.”
When she spoke, Marissa released her story in a raw and honest way. Her intention: let other parents know they are not alone in their struggle. Let them know that things can get better. Let them know they can overcome their worst fears, too.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. All month long, your childhood cancer donation to Phoenix Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders will be matched, up to $125,000, by our generous friends at the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation, Camelback Volkswagen Subaru | Camelback Hyundai Kia and Massage Envy.
That means when you #StepUpWithPCH in September, your gift will go twice as far for patients like Mars.