Not every story about childhood cancer has a happy ending. That is why it is with great joy I bring you an update on 12-year-old Holly Slavin and her family.
I first wrote about Holly when she was 7 years old and a second-grader at Porter Elementary School. In January 2009, a few weeks after she was an angel in a Christmas play at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, she was diagnosed with orbital embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer. There are only about 350 cases in the U.S. each year.
She endured seven surgeries, 13 months of chemotherapy and 25 radiation treatments over the next two years. Doctors had to remove her right eye to reach the tumor.
Holly is now a vivacious sixth-grader at Rutland Middle School. Since 2010 there has been no evidence of her cancer.
Moved by the outpouring of love and support during those difficult times, the Slavin family is now on a mission to “pay it forward.”
“We had so many people who helped us,” said Janice Slavin. “We will never know who they all are, and we don’t know how to thank them except to give back.”
Five years ago this spring, Holly began her radiation treatments at Emory. Every Monday, Janice would drive Holly and her 5-year-old sister, Emily, to Atlanta for the week. Her husband, Mike, stayed in Macon to work.
Holly’s treatments were in the mornings. Janice tried to fill the long afternoons by taking her young daughters on outings. They visited the Atlanta Zoo, Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola. They went on picnics and to the library.
The Slavins became close with another family whose teenage daughter was facing cancer for the third time. The father was not working, so he could be there to take care of her. Because of the loss of income, they usually just returned to their room at the Ronald McDonald House after radiation treatments.
Janice said that’s when the seed for “Radiation Vacation” was born.
The Slavins have started the only foundation in Georgia to exclusively assist pediatric radiation oncology families by “providing recreation activities and offering emotional, educational and financial support.”
They have raised money and received in-kind contributions to help send children and their families to Six Flags, Disney on Ice, Build-a-Bear Workshop, the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, the Rock Ranch, Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons games, and Johnny G’s in Warner Robins. They have provided tickets to shows and movie theaters, as well as gas, gift and grocery cards.
Radiation Vacation also stocks a “treasure box” at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory, filled with coloring books, doodle pads and puzzles. About 260 children (ages birth to 21 years) receive radiation treatments at the facility every year.
Last May, the foundation presented Winship with a bell. Patients of all ages can now celebrate the end of their treatments by ringing it. (The institute treats more than 2,000 cancer patients annually.)
Contributions can be made through the nonprofit’s website, www.radiationvacation.org; Facebook page; by calling 478-365-2061; or writing to Radiation Vacation, c/o Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 4074 Chambers Road, Macon, GA 31206.
The foundation’s annual fundraiser, the “Blessing of the Birds,” is five weeks away.
After Holly began her chemotherapy treatments in 2009, her hair began to fall out. Janice remembers being heartbroken watching clumps of Holly’s brown hair in the bathtub one night.
“It’s OK, Mama,” Holly told her. “We can put it out for the birds.”
Libby Lengel, a preschool teacher at Macon’s Northway Church, had taught Holly the year before and encouraged her students to leave hair clippings outside for the birds to use to build nests.
Janice was touched.
“I saved some of Holly’s hair for the next year because I didn’t know if she would be with us,” Janice said.
She placed it in a small bag in a drawer, next to curly locks she had saved from Holly’s first haircut when she was 14 months old.
This year’s “Blessing of the Birds” is April 12-13, when Radiation Vacation will partner with participating hair salons and barbers statewide, asking them to donate $1 from each haircut.
It will be Palm Sunday weekend, the week before Easter, so the salons should be busy.
The birds won’t be the only ones who will be blessed.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.