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From patient to poster girl

Posted on 11/05/2009 12:00am

By Hannah Sutherland - Peace Arch News

May 21, 2009

It started with a small cough.

Simran Sarai - usually teeming with enough energy to go to school, kick it on the soccer field and still keep up with her two brothers - came home one afternoon and curled up on the couch.

The first grader complained of leg pain, and ran a low fever.

After a few days of this, Sarj and Jin took their daughter to a pediatrician, who recommended blood work.

The next morning, Sarj was called at work. He was told to rush Simran to BC Children's Hospital.

Sarj left his job site, pulled Simran from school, and went straight to the emergency room, where she was kept for 5 ½ hours.

Doctors forcibly hooked her up to an IV and did blood cultures, as Simran kicked and screamed. Watching his terrified little girl struggle, Sarj understood they were dealing with something serious.

Those fears were confirmed when he and Jin sat with a doctor at the end of the day, and he was forced to digest the word 'cancer.' Then 'leukemia.'

A lump instantly swelled in Sarj's throat, as he struggled to catch his breath. It was a numb feeling.

The news was not without some consolation. The doctor said Simran's acute lymphoblastic leukemia was treatable; it had a 90-95 per cent cure rate.

Intensive treatment began immediately.

Simran spent the next nine days in isolation, receiving doses of chemotherapy.

"It felt like a year - half a year almost," Simran says of her stay.

Now eight, the Jesse Lee student remembers back to when she was first approached with needles, and being scared. But, as the injections came more regularly, that fear subsided. It may have been the youngster just got used to the routine, but Sarj insists Simran grew braver.

"It was kind of scary, but my dad stayed with me the whole time," Simran recalls.

While Jin took care of Simran's twin brother, Sajjan, and three-year-old Daya at their South Surrey home, Sarj was at his daughter's side.

"You just park the rest of your life," he says now. "Put it on hold and away you go."

Even when Simran returned home, chemotherapy treatments continued, causing adverse side effects such as vomiting and constipation. When her thick, dark, waist-length hair began to fall out, she shaved it off.

There was constant fear of infection and the possibility Simran could catch a bug her weakened immune system wouldn't be able to fight.

Periodically, she would battle high fevers and be rushed to the emergency room, to be kept in isolation.

"It's a whole new life," Sarj said. "Our life, it was on pins and needles for quite a while at first."

Partway through Simran's treatment, doctors determined it was the high amounts of chemotherapy - not infection - that was ravaging her body. They reduced her dose.

As a result, she experienced fewer side effects, and slowly began to regain health.

Simran went to school when she could, and even returned to the soccer field.

Last December, 26 months after her diagnosis, Simran received her final chemo treatment.

The leukemia was gone, and doctors didn't anticipate it redeveloping.

Now cancer-free, she sees doctors only for monthly checkups and blood work.

And she's finding ways to give back to the hospital that cared for her over the past two years.

Simran has stepped up as the poster child for the HSBC Childrun, appearing on signs, pamphlets and webpages dedicated to the event, held June 7 at BC Children's Hospital in support of the facility's oncology research.

She has already inspired people on the Peninsula - family, friends, coaches and the local soccer community will be at Childrun walking in her honour, under the name Team Simran.

And, for the third year in a row, she will sing for the crowd. It will be the first time she sings not as a cancer patient, but a survivor.

With large, glowing eyes, a wide smile and shoulder-length hair braided with multi-coloured elastics, Simran is the energetic, active young girl she once was.

Cancer is still a part of her life - she's just fighting it on a different front.

For more information on Childrun, or to register, visit childrun.com