Smashing Walnuts: The Fight Against Childhood Cancer

Child cancer is growing, yet experts can’t explain why. Gabriella Miller is one of the unlucky ones.

Gabriella Miller smashes a walnut on her porch in Leesburg, Va. The 10-year-old was diagnosed with brain cancer last November and started smashing walnuts to represent the battle against her tumor of the same size.

Gabriella Miller smashes a walnut on her porch in Leesburg, Va. The 10-year-old was diagnosed with brain cancer last November and started smashing walnuts to represent the battle against her tumor of the same size.

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He adds that he often finds himself trying to diffuse the anxiety of parents who blame themselves and feel they did something wrong – such as giving their child something harmful to eat or exposing him or her to someone with leukemia. Ritchey reassures them that the disease isn't contagious. "I try to say, 'No, that's not the case.' We really do think it's a genetic mistake, and it's nothing [you could] control."

Focusing on the Fight

Ellyn says she doesn't think about the why. It's the one question she doesn't ask.

"It doesn't do me any good. There's nothing we can do to change this. It's not as if you have an adult who gets liver cancer because they're a drinker or who gets lung cancer because they're a smoker, and they can look back and say, 'I shouldn't have done that.' Gabriella didn't do anything," she stops, and then repeats, "She didn't do anything."

Gabriella started radiation treatment last year, two weeks before Thanksgiving. Ellyn, 45, was about to start a new job, but decided that Gabriella needed her at home instead. Her husband Mark, a 41-year-old real estate agent, also wanted to stay home, but Ellyn put the kibosh on that plan, knowing it would only set off alarm bells for Gabriella. She said life needed to continue like "normal."

For the next six weeks, it was anything but. Monday through Friday, Ellyn drove her daughter an hour to Inova Fairfax Hospital for radiation sessions. Not allowed to stay in the treatment suite with her daughter, Ellyn sat in the waiting room crocheting a hot pink scarf for Gabriella's 10th birthday.

"When it ended, there's supposed to be such this joy, but as it was coming to a close, I had such anxiety and wasn't sleeping," Ellyn recalls, saying she felt helpless and wanted to do more. Next came a year-long clinical trial involving an experimental drug. While Gabriella's health remains uncertain, thanks to the intensive treatment her inoperable tumor has shrunk about 80 percent – to the size of a pecan.

Talking with Gabriella, you'd never know she's been in the hospital more than most 70-year-olds. Her bubbly personality masks all the scans, needles, vomiting and fatigue she's endured. "I like colors," she chatters, perched on the edge of her couch dressed in a black dress with lime green, red, blue, orange and yellow ruffles. "I like bright purple. And I love stuffed animals," she says, giggling, as she wraps herself in a monkey her size. "I have about a million."

The fifth grader also loves school, particularly language arts. Gabriella once used to write poems about fairies. Now she writes about the other children she meets in the hospital – the friends she's made and lost along the way.

Hope, helps us get better.

Hope, gives us another day to look forward to.
Hope, helps us believe we can survive.
Hope can help us win this battle.
And if all else fails, Hope can lead the others to win the war.
And by Hope, I mean a little girl, a little girl with cancer. Gabriella says scribbling words on paper – like the poem above about her friend who was diagnosed with leukemia – helps her "get it all out."

Last winter, Gabriella drew the attention of the national media for a different kind of writing. During the holidays, Macy's pledged to donate a dollar to Make-A-Wish for every letter the retailer received to Santa. The foundation had granted Gabriella's wish to visit Paris, and she wanted to other kids get their wishes granted too. So Gabriella started a letter-writing campaign to try to bring in 10,000 more Santa letters to boost the store's contribution. The initiative went viral; 250,000 letters flooded in. Bowled over, Macy's donated an extra $25,000, which covered 36 wishes for kids like Gabriella.

Her newfound fame propelled her into publishing. In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September, she collaborated with author Cindy Chambers for a book called "Beamer Learns About Cancer," about a dog and a boy named Kyle who learn how cancer cells are formed and what it's like to be a patient in the hospital. For Gabriella, it was the realization of a dream. "I want to be an author," she says.