Olivia and Natalie, relating it separately, recall their first meeting the same way.
“We met at a splash pad,” said Olivia.
“She just came up to me and hugged me, and we started playing,” said Natalie.
A pair of 4-year-old girls with long, brown hair, making instant friends at the park. Not yet knowing they would soon be stepsisters.
No one knowing that nearly a decade later, their easy bond would be deepened by circumstances not only unpredictable, but unthinkable. Unbelievable.
At 13, these stepsisters would be diagnosed with cancer: the same type, in the same leg, just weeks apart.
‘The worst what-if’
Olivia was at the splash pad with her father, Chad. Chad, divorced from Olivia’s mom, Bobbie, had Olivia every other weekend and was dating Stacy, a single mother to Natalie and Noah. If it sounds confusing, it felt straightforward. “We immediately became a family of five,” said Stacy.
Chad and Stacy were married in October 2011, when the girls were 5, and although Olivia did not live with them full-time, the family dynamic was very blended. Even after Olivia moved away in the fifth grade, the girls still saw each other on alternate weekends, every other Thanksgiving, on Christmas Eve, for a few weeks each summer.
The summer of 2018 began the turning point in both families' lives. From the very onset of Olivia’s leg pain, Bobbie had doubts. The pediatrician favored a meniscal tear, but come the day of the MRI, said Bobbie, “I had already been preparing myself for this to not be just a meniscal tear because I’m a nurse, and I knew that she did not present with the symptoms of just having meniscal tear.”
And she wasn’t the only one with concerns. On the way into the scan, Olivia looked at her and confessed, “‘Mom, I dreamed last night that I had to have my leg cut off because this is cancer.’” Bobbie calmed her sobbing daughter, but it was a little like the cards had been tipped to show the hand. The look on the tech’s face just sealed it. Their eerie feeling stayed an unspoken fear until the phone call.
“The word 'cancer,' you know. As a mother, you have these ‘we don’t go there’ thoughts,” Bobbie said. “The whole time your baby is growing up, you worry about: What if? What if? What if? And cancer really is, like, the worst what-if...”
It was, she said, “obviously sarcoma; a big, huge, funky tumor” on Olivia’s right femur. Olivia was immediately referred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and arrived the day after her scan, to an official diagnosis of osteosarcoma — bone cancer — and the first of many weeks of chemotherapy.
Almost right away, it seemed like the news would get worse. Two spots showed up that might have indicated metastases to the lungs. “When we found out that was negative, that was a good day,” Stacy remembered.
A dark day was soon to follow.
‘This can’t be real’
“It’s the craziest thing anybody’s ever heard,” said Bobbie. “Whenever I tell the story, it’s hard for people to know how to react because they just can’t believe it.”
After about a month, Stacy and Chad arrived at St. Jude to relieve Bobbie, so she could travel home to see her husband and three other children. And Stacy mentioned that her mom was taking Natalie for an MRI due to a knee injury at cheerleading. “With Olivia’s stuff going on, I didn’t want to take any chances,” she said.
Bobbie would only be home for one night. With worry on her heart.
Natalie’s MRI did not show the obvious malignancy of Olivia’s. It could possibly have been a bone infection. But the biopsy proved Natalie had osteosarcoma — same as Olivia — in her right tibia.
When Stacy got the call about Olivia, she’d thought, “This can’t be real.” When she learned about Natalie, she thought, “How is this even possible? God would not do this to me, both of my girls.”
When Bobbie learned the news, she was determined that Natalie needed to be at St. Jude, too.
In a matter of days, she was.
Though Olivia seems older, Natalie is actually three months her senior to the day — just another coincidence in a family that is either way past believing in coincidences or never believed in them at all.
Bobbie calls them “God winks” — those weird synchronicities that, to her mind, add up to a plan in action. Stacy feels the same. “I believe God places things in your life for a reason. We may not always understand it until later, but He knows why, and reveals it to us in time.”
When Natalie arrived at St. Jude in October 2018, Olivia had been there since August. She was a month into the osteosarcoma protocol that Natalie would also complete, so she was able to tell her stepsister what she could expect.
“At least in the beginning, I would like to think that that helped a little bit,” said Olivia. “But everybody’s reaction to chemo and surgery and just how you feel on a daily basis is so different.”
Natalie suffered more severe side effects than Olivia. Olivia was able to recover from chemo as an outpatient in St. Jude housing, but neutropenic fever landed Natalie inpatient again and again and again.
But, when both were outpatient, they came together as a different kind of blended family. Just the mothers and daughters, visiting one another’s St. Jude apartments for meals, movies, moral support.
Moral support that involved very little discussion of cancer, actually. Whereas the girls were finding that friends back home were unsure how to interact with them, they knew what they wanted was simply to be treated normally.
Natalie said, “A lot of people at home almost consider me as a different person, but I’m the same person.”
“It’s almost like they think you’re fragile, like glass, and if they say something the wrong way, it’s the end of the world,” said Olivia. “I feel like my friends are like, ‘Oh, you have bigger stuff on your mind’. And I’m kind of like, ‘Should I?’ Because even though we do surgeries and chemotherapies, it’s just a thing I have to do. It’s not like I picked it. We’ve changed, but I still like the same music and clothes.”
So, their time together during treatment was normalizing teen time. Thirteen-year-old girl time. Time to talk about make-up and Netflix. Olivia said, “We both knew that we were still the same people even though we were going through some crazy stuff. We just really got a lot closer.”
For their part, Stacy and Bobbie had always had an amicable and collaborative relationship. Yet, when marriages dissolve, new spouses appear, and former spouses stay close — it would be most people’s definition of natural for there to be a certain distance, maybe a small, self-protective guard up.
“That all just went out the window,” said Stacy. “Now, she’s probably one of my best friends. I don’t know how I would have made it without her. We talk all the time, and we can relate to each other in ways that I can’t relate to some of my friends at home.”
“Before Natalie got diagnosed, Olivia was diagnosed, and we were just both Olivia’s mom trying to process the cancer diagnosis,” said Bobbie. “And I would say from the get-go, from the very first day, we were on the same page as far as the worry and the hurt. And then I think we got even closer after Natalie was diagnosed because she then could relate even more, and I could relate to her.
“I’m so thankful for her. If Olivia was gonna have a step-mom, I’m so glad that it’s Stacy, you know? You can’t pick who your exes marry, but I couldn’t have asked for somebody better for Olivia to have for a step-mom. So I really like Stacy. I love her.”
“She allowed me to help her with Olivia,” said Stacy. “And I always said if something happened to me or I was sick or whatever, I was, like, ‘I trust Bobbie to take care of Natalie.’”
Closer than ever
The stepsisters have successfully finished treatment and have gone home cancer-free. Olivia has already passed the first anniversary of her diagnosis — a date delivering a mixed bag of feelings. As much as the girls are the same people they were before, the fact is they were plucked from their regular lives and set on a path they had to follow, and at the end, it has opened up to different view.
“I had to suck it up and get over it and keep going,” said Olivia. “I want to live a long life and a healthy life. I didn’t want to be sick, but I was sick, so I had to learn to live with it and learn to be happy with it. It took a while.”
When it wasn’t difficult or nauseating or painful, cancer treatment was “a lot of just laying around.” After limb-saving surgery, in which the affected area of bone was removed from each girl’s leg and replaced with a rod, neither of them could walk for eight weeks.
Can it be surprising, then, that Olivia now gets excited about going to school? After being so sick for so long, the simple ability to do a thing makes doing it enjoyable. Natalie recently made meatloaf for her family’s dinner, something that had never crossed her mind to do before. She said, “I could do it, and I wanted to because I knew that I could.”
“I think Olivia appreciates everything a lot more now,” said Bobbie. “The way the sky looks, her little brother’s laugh, the way food tastes.”
Except popsicles. Especially red popsicles. Those are perhaps forever ruined by their use in cold therapy, intended to help reduce side effects of chemo.
“I can’t even look at them anymore,” Olivia said.
These families hope their story, while jaw-dropping, will also be eye-opening. “People always say, ‘This is so weird,’” said Bobbie. “I’m, like, ‘Yeah. But you know, there’s more childhood cancer than anybody realizes.’”
Olivia’s family already had another move planned before any of this happened — a move that puts them just 30 minutes from Natalie’s house. Closer than ever, in more ways than the map can show.
Editor’s note 11/23/20: Natalie and Olivia are attending different high schools for the ninth grade, but enjoy spending as much time together as they can. They both return to St. Jude for regular checkups and their most recent scans show no evidence of disease.