The walk from my car to the North Park Lions Club on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 10 was accompanied by the unusually brisk chill of San Diego fall. Daylight savings had just begun its routine of pulling a cloak of darkness over the sun earlier than usual—prompting many North Park residents to stay inside. However, as soon as I opened the doors of the club nestled on the corner of University Avenue and Utah Street, the warmth and light exuding from the large group in attendance was infectious.
The room had a stage with drawn-back curtains similar to one in a middle school assembly hall. A DJ camped onstage blasted a mix of hip-hop, salsa and oldies inspiring people to hit the dance floor. The aroma of West African cuisine set up on a long table against the wall teased my nostrils, setting the stage for a festive evening.
They gathered to celebrate San Diego State speech pathology sophomore Leticia Bruce’s 10-year anniversary of remission from two bouts with leukemia.
The smile painted on Bruce’s face as she floated around the room would have inspired Vincent van Gogh. Multiple generations of Bruce’s family and friends came to show their love and support. This age gap became comedically apparent as the younger crowd laughed while watching older guests attempt the cupid shuffle to Ja Rule’s “Put It On Me.”
Despite the generational line dance confusion, everyone ended dancing together—entranced by the sprit of the evening.
I noticed a group of children at the party who couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9 years old. As they danced around without a care in the world, I couldn’t help but pause at the irony of the moment: When Bruce was their age, she wasn’t basking the same blissful ignorance. She was fighting for her life.
Young Life and Diagnosis
Bruce, a San Diego native, lives with her mother, Sue Allard, in the only apartment she’s ever called home. Her parents divorced not long after she was born.
Bruce was a very active child before her diagnosis. She took dance classes at Eveoke Dance Theatre, participated in youth gymnastics and enjoyed piano lessons. Her personality matched her eclectic taste in activities.
“I was a free spirit. I didn’t care what anyone thought,” Bruce said. “I was so blunt, I didn’t have a filter. It got me in trouble sometimes.”
She recalled an incident at the dentist’s office that exemplified her frankness. While getting her teeth cleaned, she asked, “Why are your teeth so yellow? Aren’t you a dentist?”
Bruce never felt the need to apologize for her behavior. She showed me her favorite quote hanging above the bed in her room: “It’s better to be hated for who you are than loved for what you’re not.”
When Bruce turned 7 years old, her energy began to diminish. Allard adopted the tradition of weighing and measuring Bruce on every birthday but that year, things were different.
“She’s always been the tallest in her class. That year she grew several inches, but she started to thin out,” Allard said.
Bruce would come home from school and go straight to bed or camp on the couch and watch TV. She constantly complained to her mother about aches and pains.
Allard worked as a nurse, so when Bruce experienced three-straight nights of fever and night sweats, she took her daughter to the doctor to see what was wrong.
From the description Allard gave the doctors assumed it might be leukemia. Bruce needed a bone marrow aspiration to find out. The procedure involved injecting a needle into her lower back to retrieve a marrow sample from the bone. Bruce received a pill to numb the painful procedure, but she recalled feeling everything.
“If I had to compare that pain to anything, I would say being skinned alive,” she said.
Bruce was in her second grade class the morning her mother arrived with the diagnosis.
“She came into class very emotional and hugged my teacher with tears in her eyes,” Bruce said. “My mom’s an emotional person, but it takes a lot to get her like that.”
The diagnosis was acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer common in children where malignant, immature white blood cells multiply and overproduce in the bone marrow.
Bruce needed to be immediately admitted to the hospital.
A Mother’s Love
Back at the party, Allard wore a dress with vibrant colors flowing together like a peacock’s tail. As she interacted with family and friends, they seemed to awe at the strength and dedication she exemplified during her daughter’s bouts with leukemia. While she kept herself busy helping with food and entertaining guests, Allard took a moment every once in a while to hug her daughter and sway a bit to the music. Moments of happiness were not a luxury she could afford while taking care of her daughter in the hospital.
Allard had spent time around a lot of cancer patients while working as a nurse and grew familiar with the statistics and death rates surrounding cancer. Taking care of her daughter created a surreal situation.
“You’re a nurse and you take care of other people—you don’t take care of your own kid,” Allard said. “I was determined that she would be an outlier and wouldn’t be one of the average statistics.”
While Bruce underwent chemotherapy, Allard would compile her daughter’s schoolwork and tutor her in reading and writing.
“People would say, ‘Why are you pushing this when she’s sick,’” Allard said. She would reply, “Because she’s going to get through this and I don’t want her to be years behind. I felt like it was normalcy in the midst of what wasn’t normal.”
While many pictures of Bruce during chemotherapy show her smiling, the treatment took its toll on her. Her hair thinned out and the trademark dizziness and nausea set in.
“I knew everyday would be a struggle but I knew that eventually it would go away.”
After completing her cycles of chemotherapy, tests showed her cancer had gone into remission. Bruce was excited to get back to school and return to her normal life.
The Darkest Hour
A collage of smiling faces of hospital staff, childhood friends and family was taped to one of the walls in the North Park Lions Club. The title “Reasons to Live” was etched in magic marker on the top. This poster hung in Bruce’s hospital room as a reminder of all the people who cared about her and wanted to see her survive. However, when Bruce’s leukemia returned 18 months after it was declared in remission, there were moments when the 9-year-old contemplated killing herself.
Allard took her daughter to City of Hope National Medical Center in Los Angeles because of its stellar survival rating for leukemia patients who received bone marrow transplants there. Bruce would need one to survive her second bout with leukemia, but the treatment leading up to a possible transplant was more rigorous than before.
Bruce underwent intense chemotherapy and radiation treatment to kill off the cancer cells in her body. She lost all of her hair, radiation darkened her skin and steroids injected to strengthen her atrophied muscles made her gain weight.
“I didn’t feel like myself,” Bruce said. “When you look in the mirror, you see a certain image and it reflects how you feel inside sometimes. My image didn’t look like me. I actually avoided looking at mirrors.”
All of the changes her body experienced coupled with the pain and exhaustion from countless treatments pulled Bruce into a deep depression. After she tried to pull her IV out of her veins in an attempt to hurt herself, nurses were dispatched to watch her overnight.
“She was always a cuddly, warm kid who liked a lot of affection,” Allard said. “She got to the point where she didn’t want it. She didn’t want to be comforted.”
The Most Precious Gift
Bruce’s cousin Jordi Kata and his reggae band Irieality set up onstage. Everyone gathered on the dance floor in anticipation as Kata prepared to sing a special song he wrote for his cousin. The melodic flow and relaxed rhythm of the song entranced everyone there and drew them to dance. Kata’s lyrics rang full of purpose and meaning as he sang the chorus “Feel it, you’re alive. It’s the most precious gift—The gift of life.”
Bruce’s precious gift came in the form of a bone marrow match from a clinic in Sweden. In order to receive the transplant, however, Bruce needed a transfusion to change her blood type from type A-B positive to type O-negative.
Both operations were successful and proved to be turning points in her road to recovery.
As Bruce’s strength returned, her family and friends focused on pulling her out of the depression. Her aunt sent books and art material so she could stay engaged and use her imagination to think about life outside the hospital. Her aunt also encouraged Bruce to create a “happy place” she could escape to when she felt sad.
“It was Hawaii,” Bruce said. “I had a hammock between two palm trees, monkeys, dolphins and rabbits were there. It was always sunny there.”
Bruce’s neighbors painted a mural based on her happy place on the wall in her room for when she returned home from the hospital.
Life after treatment presented some obstacles. Because of brain damage from to the radiation, Bruce’s lost the ability to retain certain types of information. She has to continually practice things or she will forget them. Despite the damage, through hard work and dedication, Bruce earned straight A’s from her sophomore to senior years in high school and excels at SDSU.
At this point, Irieality pulled me from my journalistic perspective in the corner of the Lions Club to join everyone on the dance floor. The spirit of the evening and the beauty of the music finally caught up to me. I joined in with everyone in this celebration of life for Bruce and began singing, “Feel it, you’re alive. It’s the most precious gift—the gift of life.”