With leukemia beat, she’s ready for first grade

Dawn Labb (right) and daughter Julia, with a family friend, at a bake sale last year at the Bridesburg Recreation Center, the proceeds of which benefited cancer research. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAWN LABB

After years of troubles, one Bridesburg family has a lot to be thankful for — 7-year-old Julia is celebrating the one-year anniversary of the date she was declared officially cured of cancer.

It is likely one of the hardest things any parent ever has to hear.

“Your child has cancer.”

Bridesburg’s Dawn Labb heard that fateful phrase more than five years ago. Today, she can proudly say that she helped her 7-year-old daughter, Julia, maintain a normal childhood while fighting off leukemia.

Julia will soon hit the one-year anniversary of her official “cured” date.

“May 17, 2012, was her official cured date,” Dawn Labb said last week, with pride in her voice. “Five years in remission is defined as officially cured, and she’s at her five years. She’s seven now, she plays soccer, she’s in the first grade.”

Now, little Julia and her loved ones will celebrate.

Tomorrow, Labb, a credentialing coordinator at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Juniata Park, is holding a St. Patrick’s Day party in the hospital’s oncology unit with the group of friends who have supported her since she recieved her daughter’s difficult diagnosis.

The party will be in the clinic, Labb said, so it doubles as an activity for other children who are currently getting chemotherapy or getting their procedures done. “They get good food, there’s a magician, they can make a T-shirt.”

Labb has experienced first-hand how difficult a childhood diagnosis of cancer can be. She helped Julia through two years and nine months of chemotherapy treatment and regular check-ups, watched her daughter lose her hair, and stood by her while Julia had a surgical “port” installed in her body for her frequent intravenous injections.

That’s part of why she and her friends have started this small group to raise money for cancer research.

“When Julia first got diagnosed in 2007, my girlfriends wanted to do something, like a beef-and-beer,” Labb recalled. “I said ‘No, I don’t really want to do that, but if you want to do something, let’s raise money and let’s do something at the clinic.’ So that’s how we got started.”

Now Labb’s group of friends regularly participates in the CureSearch Walk fundraiser, and also holds community bake sales at the Bridesburg Recreation Center.

The support helped Labb get through the three years of active treatment — while staff in the St. Christopher’s oncology unit became her “extended family,” she said.

“I was an employee here, ironically, when Jules got diagnosed,” Labb said.

While she knew the doctors as co-workers, she said she didn’t receive special treatment — and was just as lucky as anyone to get her daughter diagnosed so early.

Back in 2007, at age 1 and a half, Julia was getting ear infections that wouldn’t go away, Labb recalled, and she said it was also strange that her daughter didn’t really want to walk.

“One morning, we woke up, and her face and feet were swollen so bad — so we went to the emergency room,” Labb said.

A few hours later, blood work test results came back. Julia had B-cell leukemia, blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow.

Labb and her husband, Bill, a mailman, had to rearrange their schedules to care for Julia in addition to her two older brothers. The first six months required a lot of time in the hospital, Labb said.

“We handled it the best we could — one of us would stay with her, and the other would go home with the boys and we would switch, and when he would leave for work from the hospital, I would be here at seven. Somebody had to stay working,” Labb said. “Looking back, it’s almost like it was surreal — but it did happen.”

There were particularly tough moments — days when they had to grind up Julia’s medicine to make it easier for her to take, and when she had to go through a spinal tap procedure.

Gradually, they were able to start giving Julia normal childhood experiences, taking her to playgrounds and the beach, and signing her up for preschool.

“We definitely tried our best to keep it as normal as we could for her,” Labb said. “It was up and down. But for the most part, we could keep her on point with what was happening in her life.”

In fact, that became Labb’s philosophy to get through her daughter’s illness: taking it one day at a time.

“You tend to take it day by day and try to hope for the best result in that day. You do what you can do.”

“Fortunately,” she continued, “Things turned out wonderful.”

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.