LOS ANGELES, CA – For Anya Shah the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena ushering in the year 2016 will have new meaning. This 12-year-old cancer survivor will not be a mere spectator but a participant riding atop the City of Hope float along with four others. She is not the only Indian-American presence...
Anya, a resident of Whittier, a seventh grader at Carden school , was diagnosed with leukemia when she was eight. It was then her journey to recovery began at City of Hope. With the life-saving treatment she has received and through her support network, four years on she is now in remission. Apart from academic excellence, she is a gymnast who one day wants to be a pediatric oncologist to treat kids suffering from cancer. “ I wanted to be President but my priorities have changed,’ she said speaking with India Journal.
Anya is in the City of Hope’s Speakers Bureau, speaking at different fundraisers as a survivor to help raise money and awareness for cancer. Being a part of the Rose Parade Anya says, symbolizes a new year in her life with a fresh start, cancer-free. “My presence at the parade shows that although cancer is a rough disease, it is still possible to overcome it just as I did. More than anything, my fight with cancer has taught me to value every moment and new experience that life has to offer. Hopefully, as I sit on the City of Hope float and wave to a national and international audience, I will inspire courage and hope in those fighting cancer right now, so that they too can look forward to a fresh new year of life.”
The theme for The City of hope float is “The Miracle of Science with Soul”, which fits well with the wider parade theme of “Find your Adventure.”
For Anya, life in remission is an adventure. When she first heard her diagnosis she was worried.“ I had to ask what it was before I really knew how to react. I immediately started crying, but soon realized that everything will be okay,” she says.
“It felt very overwhelming. I was just about to start third grade, but then I was stuck being homeschooled. It not only affected me, but it affected close friends and family also.”
Anya’s parents Nirali and Ajit Shah have been her anchor through it all. “My parents are the ones that did literally everything for me. They would take care of me and worry about my every ache and pain. They are the whole reason I am still healthy today and living great,” she says. Her saddest memory she recollects “was probably the day I found out I had cancer and the days being homeschooled.” Conversely, her happiest memory was when she got to go back to school for the last few days and feel like a normal third grader again. “After I was done with one year of treatment, and I was healthier, I was able to go back to school for fourth grade. During Presidential Fitness, which is a test of one’s strength and endurance, I got the presidential award, the highest award possible. I also went back to gymnastics, which felt like a huge accomplishment. I finally got to compete.
To kids suffering from cancer, Anya says,“just hang in there. Believe in yourself because believing is the first step towards success. Also have faith in God, and the people taking care of you. Trust your doctors, nurses, and hospital. At first, you may think cancer is so terrible, I’m going to die; but if you really think about it, cancer is just another obstacle in your life, which you will have to overcome.”
Anya is not an only child. She has three siblings Kyra (10), Roshan (8) and Vadin (5).
Her diagnosis impacted not only her parents but the entire family. Says her mother Nirali,“When we first found out , we were all crying. We had a lot of emotions. From feeling angry to sad to overwhelmed. I would ask myself why us? I sometimes rather wish it was me and not her.”
Among the biggest challenges and struggles her parents faced along the way were as her mother Nirali recounts, “Going through treatment, spending days in the hospital and also juggling to keep everyone’s life as normal as could be.”
Anya’s treatment lasted about two and a half years during which time she was homeschooled for a year. Dealing with the myriad side effects of chemotherapy was enervating. Her mother would have to sit with Anya for hours to get her to finish even half of the food on her plate. Then there were some real bad days driving to the hospital in the middle of the night, to stopping the car in the middle of the road so Anya could throw up. In the second year of treatment Anya went back to competing in gymnastics. Her mother distinctly remembers her first competition. She had just had her chemotherapy couple days ago. After the competition Anya was crying, and really upset that she did not place or win any medals. She was always hard on herself., Says Nirali,“To me she was my hero. I told Anya that day, that there was no one else in the competition who had just undergone chemo. The fact that she competed made her a champion.”
For parents in a similar situation, Nirali says, “pray and have faith. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be in the moment but never give up. You have to stay strong and try to have normalcy in your lives despite the situation. Never lower your bar/expectations for your child. Having a strong support system is also very important.”
Philosophically she goes on, “Life changes so quickly. Four years ago a day before my birthday we got the news that Anya had cancer and now four years later a day before my birthday we found out that she is going to be on the City of Hope float in the Rose Parade. I think today Anya is thriving because of all the support she has received and she along with the entire family has grown stronger from the hardship we all have gone through. Anya is a fighter; she gives us strength and courage and always reminds us to live in the moment. Also we have learned to appreciate everything we have and the bonds with people have gotten stronger.”