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The day the dancing stopped
Suzie Pavlat loved to dance. That was obvious to anyone who knew her. She would twirl around her living room, dancing all the time. And when asked, she would volunteer that when she grew up she was going to be “a ballerina or a mommy.”
So the day the dancing stopped, her father knew something was wrong. Suzie no longer had the strength or energy to get up and dance. Her dream of being a ballerina would have to be put aside. Suzie was going to need all of her energy and strength just to stay alive.
Suzie had a cancer called neuroblastoma, a solid tumor that St. Jude doctors are continuing to research with some success. In fact, survival rates have improved from 10 percent in 1962, when St. Jude opened, to almost 60 percent today. But Suzie’s case was a tough one. Over the next eight years, the Pavlats would endure a roller coaster of emotions—hope followed by disappointment, second chances that would evaporate in time.
Suzie’s treatment included chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. At one point, remembered her father, Jack, they thought they had beaten the disease. “We had been told that with the transplant, if you go 36 months, 90 percent of those people don’t have any problem.”
Suzie made it to 35 months, only to have the cancer return. It was then that her doctors turned to St. Jude. Another year of chemo and a cancer vaccine that St. Jude doctors had been working on again put the cancer into remission. But, again, it returned.
“Failure is not an option,” her father would say. Researchers and doctors at St. Jude agreed and continued to look for ways to fight off the cancer.
Suzie would face these new challenges with a beautiful smile. “She always had a gorgeous smile,” Jack said.
In the meantime, the family continued to cherish every moment they had together. “Every time we get a chance to do something, we go for it,” Jack said. He left his position as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy to take care of his daughter and his wife, who also had been stricken with cancer. They also began to support St. Jude by appearing at events across the country, encouraging supporters and donors to not give up on children like Suzie, who needed their help.
“We felt every day was a blessing,” Jack said. “We wanted to make the most of it because we never knew how many days there would be.”
In 2000, Suzie, then 10 years old, sat at a large round table in the Tiger Woods Library of the Target House in Memphis. (Target House is a long-term stay facility for St. Jude patients). She was still thinking about what she wanted to be when she grew up and was writing a handwritten letter for St. Jude that would go out to donors.
She thought about her original dream of being a ballerina, and she thought about all the people who had helped her over the years in her fight against cancer. After giving it some thought, she wrote: “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor or a mommy.”
Suzie never got to do either. On August 12, 2001, after battling cancer for more than eight years, Suzie died at her home. She was 11 years old.
“The only comfort we have is that we know we did everything we could because of the doctors at St. Jude,” Jack said. “Our children are just so important that the research must go on.”