By Samantha Lauriello
Claire Russell was diagnosed with bone cancer at just four years old. She’s now nine, and her mom, Michelle, says her daughter has experienced more pain than many of us will in our lifetime. Thankfully, Claire is currently cancer-free, but that doesn’t mean she’s completely free of that pain.
Michelle recently shared a story about it that went viral: One rushed morning as the two were getting ready for the day, Michelle handed her shorts and a tank top to put on. But Claire asked if she could have a different shirt, which didn’t make sense to Michelle because she had always loved that one.
“A boy at camp told me I shouldn’t wear shirts that show my scars. He said they are scary,” Michelle recalls Claire saying, explaining why she didn’t want to wear the tank top. Of course, Michelle’s first instinct was to be furious at that boy, but she quickly realized he obviously had no idea about her daughter’s grueling cancer treatment.
Grueling is the right word for it. Claire had endured 17 rounds of chemotherapy in just one year, Michelle tells Health. She had multiple surgeries to remove four ribs and part of her spinal sheath as well as to fuse her spine together. On top of that, she also attended funerals of friends she made who had lost their lives to the same disease she was fighting.
Needless to say, Claire is one tough little girl, but sometimes words hurt in a way that nothing else can. “Claire was always very proud of what she had been through,” Michelle says. “She had always been very willing to show anybody who wanted to see her scars… I think it crushed her heart because she had always thought of them as something that showed her bravery, and no one had ever said anything negative about them before that.”
Michelle says she tried to explain the boy’s comment; she told Claire he must have meant that whatever she went through to get those scars was probably really scary. But Claire wasn’t convinced, and her eyes teared up, reflecting her pain from the hurtful remark.
“I want you to think about all the little girls like you that you have met, who are fighting cancer like you did, who will have scars like you,” Michelle recalls telling Claire. “Do you want them to cover them up? Hide them?” (On Friday nights, Claire goes back to the hospital where she was treated to serve dinner to children who are currently in treatment, so she’s met a lot of other kids her age with cancer, Michelle explains.)
That did it for Claire. “No!” Michelle remembers her exclaiming. “I don’t want them to be sad.”
That’s Claire in a nutshell. “It inspires her greatly to inspire other kids,” Michelle says, which is something unique about her daughter. Every child is different, and Michelle says had it been one of her two sons battling cancer at a young age, they wouldn’t have agreed to document their diagnosis and treatment on social media the way Claire did. “They don’t like to have their picture taken. They don’t like to talk about things like that… We always say we let Claire take the lead.”
After Michelle reminded Claire that she would be inspiring other children by showing off her scars, Claire smiled, grabbed the tank top, and walked out of the room. She was ready to take on the day.
Michelle has assured Claire that when other kids ask about her scars, they’re not trying to be mean, they’re just curious. So far, there’s only been one subsequent incident when another child made a comment, but it didn’t trigger the same hurtful reaction. “I think she’s just gotten to a place where she’s really comfortable with herself and what she’s been through,” Michelle says.
It hasn’t been easy, but Claire has overcome countless obstacles in her nine years, and she’s not about to let her scars stop her now. “She’s very old for her age, but that’s just something that comes along with going through something like that. It ages you pretty quickly,” Michelle says. “She amazes us with her ability to overcome, and we’ve always told her that… She is so bubbly, outgoing, and free-spirited, you would never look at her and think she had experienced any kind of trauma.”