VACAVILLE — Shae McCord has an impish grin and a quick wit.
Ask her about her competitive swimming and she’ll launch into conversation about her favorite stroke and why she doesn’t like backstroke.
School? Recess is her favorite, she said, as she giggled with her sisters. But she likes science, too.
Ask the 8-year-old to demonstrate disco dancing and you’ll get an impromptu rendition with her 7- and 10-year-old sisters, Catlyn and Falin, of John Travolta doing his famous dance in “Saturday Night Fever.”
Ask her about her cancer and the smile goes away. Much of the conversation goes away. Her demeanor is replaced by one that reveals the hardships she’s gone through in the past year after having a malignant brain tumor removed and it being diagnosed as a Stage 4 mass.
While much of her shiny brown hair has grown back, the lengthy scar tissue remains from the surgery. It goes from her forehead to behind her ears, is somewhat devoid of hair but only visible when the longish pixie cut flips itself the wrong way. Shae makes sure that doesn’t happen too often – with quick unconscious motions, she makes sure her hair is in check when she’s not wearing a hat.
She traced her fingers along the scar when asked about it. When asked if she knew how many stitches she had, she said, “No, but it had to be a lot.”
Shae’s ordeal began a year ago, right around Mother’s Day. She’d been previously diagnosed with hemiplegic migraines, which can cause muscle weakness on one side of the body and difficulty speaking. Shae was plagued with a bad headache one weekend that kept her home the next Monday. Her mother took her to the pediatrician Tuesday morning. From there, they were sent to a neurologist in Roseville and then on to Kaiser Permanente in South Sacramento.
“Tuesday afternoon, she looked like someone who had a stroke,” her mother, Tara McCord, said as she described the quick loss of her daughter’s gross motor skills, along with one side of her face drooping. “It was that bad.”
Tara, still not realizing the severity of it, called her husband, when they talked about admitting her.
“It was just complete and utter shock,” she said, upon being told of the 7-centimeter mass in her daughter’s brain. “The whole floor dropped from underneath me.”
Surgery was immediate and lasted about 13 hours. Doctors prepared the parents, saying Shae might not be able to talk and there could be some paralysis. They also weren’t sure how long it would be before she had sensation or movement.
“I cried,” said 10-year-old Falin upon finding out her sister was in the hospital. Like Shae, her happy demeanor changed as she struggled to formulate words about how she felt during that time.
The parents waited and worried during surgery, but Mike McCord said they got to see her fairly soon afterward and before they even got into her room, she was moving.
“They were surprised,” Tara said of the doctors. “The first thing Shae asked was, ‘Where are my panties?’ ”
As the family sat in their kid-friendly living room recently, they laughed at that particular memory – Shae included, as she buried her head for a minute before coming up smiling.
Speaking clearly came just as fast and within 36 hours after surgery, Shae was up and walking. The headache pain, weakness, droopy face, loss of gross motor skills also disappeared.
With her family rallying behind her, Shae began chemotherapy and radiation at the same time in a test program – she began to lose her hair about halfway through. Shae continues chemo, with a round of MRIs on a regular basis. Much to the relief of the family, the tests have shown no regrowth. Also, much to their amazement, the chemotherapy has had little effect on her. She gets her chemotherapy infusion in a port, then goes home to swim practice.
“It doesn’t seem to affect her at all,” Tara said, adding that the only issue seems to be tiredness the week of chemotherapy.
After missing the last month of her second-grade year, Shae started third grade on time. She, like her siblings, are in the Spanish Immersion program at Cambridge Elementary School in Vacaville. Ten weeks after surgery, Shae was back in the pool swimming competitively and she also rejoined Girl Scouts.
“I am amazed by her,” Tara said. “I’m extremely proud of her and it breaks my heart that she has had to go through this.”
Shae’s lucky bounce back hasn’t been without traumatic remnants. The easier-to-deal-with reminders include loss of sensation in her hand – she’s had to switch writing hands and the normally independent child has to ask for help sometimes, her mother said. She continues to work with an occupational therapist to increase her fine motor skills.
The emotional scars are hidden behind family, where she feels safe and confident. Shae cried recently when her father tearfully recounted the day they found out about the tumor. The tears flowed freely also as talk turned to Shae’s hair loss during her initial chemotherapy and radiation – whether she lost all her hair or not is a matter of debate for Shae.
Tara can see the emotional change, as well, in her daughter.
“I look at pictures (taken after) and I can see it’s different,” she said. “I’m hoping that goes away.
“She’s gone through so much . . . she’s had to grow up.”
Despite differing ways of dealing with Shae’s illness, Mike and Tara have grown closer. They were told by a social worker that most families, within a year of a diagnosis such as this, split up.
“In our instance, we’re lucky, we’re one of the few,” she said. “We got closer. You appreciate every day.”
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.