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Everyday Heroes: 'Light the Night' honored hero Lyra

Everyday Hero Lyra McDonald{ } studies our wireless microphone during her interview.

This week’s Everyday Hero is a fighter, a whirlwind of high-energy activity, and to top it all off, she’s full of love.

“I have just one power,” says 4-year-old Lyra McDonald.

That power?

“Make friends.”

Lyra is our Everyday Hero because she’ll be the face of a difficult struggle for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s big fundraising event Saturday, Oct. 14 called “Light the Night.”

Two years ago, Lyra was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. It came as a terrible surprise to her family.

“I literally woke up one morning a normal mom, and ended the day a cancer mom,” says Lyra's mom, Megan McDonald. “It was very fast. And because that leukemia is so aggressive, we started chemotherapy the next day.”

In 24 hours, Lyra went from a social toddler to an isolated cancer patient. So many big changes turned her and her family’s lives upside down. Lyra was pumped full of steroids and chemotherapy drugs, which compromised her immune system to the extreme. She had to be pulled from day care and isolated in her house, away from the common childhood illnesses that sweep through schools, like chicken pox. For many kids, it’s almost a rite of passage. For Lyra, it could be deadly.

But her mother says it was a blessing that Lyra was so young.

“She was too young to realize that cancer was scary. She didn’t care we had to cut all her hair off,” Megan remembers.

Childhood leukemia research has advanced a lot in the past 30 years. Doctors knew exactly what to do to give Lyra the best chance of beating her cancer.

“The good thing about leukemia is there’s a lot of research on how you treat it,” says Megan. “And there’s very standard protocol. So we are on the protocol, which is for almost two-and-a-half years.”

Megan says the first nine months were very intense. Over the first 30 days, Lyra was on a brutal round of chemo. After 30 days, tests couldn’t find any cancerous cells. She was officially in remission. But the tests can’t look at every cell, and the standard treatment for girls with ALL lasts for around 2.5 years (for boys, treatment lasts about a year longer, because cancer cells can hide in boy-specific body parts).

After that first 30 days, Lyra was put on different drugs. The steroids she was prescribed along with the chemotherapy did a number on her body and mind. Two-year-old Lyra gained 10 pounds, almost half her body weight. And it affected her moods.

“Steroids are like having a little Incredible Hulk,” says Megan. “It was crazy.”

But after that first nine months, things started to improve. Her medications were scaled back to what’s called “maintenance” levels. Her hair started to grow back. But still, she had almost two more years of treatment left. That included regular monthly visits to the clinic, and a chemo pill every night.

“I can just swallow them,” Lyra boasts. “My mom and dad don’t have to crush them anymore.”

And in a couple of months, Lyra’s chest port, where they attach her “butterfly” needle during those monthly visits, will come out. Then it’s a waiting game, as they get on with their lives and hope the cancer never comes back. Like so many of the struggles the McDonald family has endured over the past two years, it'll be an act of bravery.

“We go from two years of visiting oncologists, and having—oddly—a little bit of comfort that we’re continuing to do something to keep this beast away,” says Megan, “and then on January 22nd we just stop and cross our fingers and hope it never comes back.”

About 3,100 children and adolescents are diagnosed with ALL every year. Eighty-five percent of those kids are expected to be long-term survivors. Researchers are discovering new treatments and breakthroughs that are saving more lives. And funding more research is important for the medical world to better understand what causes ALL and other childhood cancers, and to figure out how to help kids beat them.

That’s where “Light the Night” comes in. It’s a major fundraising event for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the money raised will go to research, and to help support families in the middle of what can be a heartbreaking fight.

Lyra will be a headliner at the fun event, and most of her extended family will be there as part of her team. She’ll carry a white lantern, signifying that she’s a survivor. Others will carry red lanterns, showing they’re supporters. Some will carry gold lanterns, in remembrance of a loved one they lost.

And Lyra has just one request, a line she’s been busy practicing:

“HELP US LIGHT THE NIGHT!”

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