Dundalk girl keeps smiling through medical adversity
Wednesday, 31 October 2012 13:08

Tisa relied on her mom, Tracey, and her entire family to help her stay positive during her battle with brain cancer. photo by Nicole Rodman

by Nicole Rodman

    Tisa Belcher is a lot like other kids her age.
    A seventh-grader at Dundalk Middle School, Tisa lives in Dundalk with  her mom, dad and two sisters.
    Like most kids, Tisa goes to school, does her homework and hangs out with friends.
    Unlike most kids, however, Tisa has already had to fight for her life after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
    Now, Tisa is in remission and more accomplished than ever, having recently been named Student of the Year by the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities.
    It was last Mothers Day,  May 8, when Tisa and her family received the diagnosis that would turn their lives upside down.
    Doctors told Tisa and her mother, Tracey, that a cancerous tumor was growing on her pituitary gland, pressing on her optic nerves and endangering both her vision and her life.
    Both Tisa and Tracey remember that day well.
    As Tracey explained during an interview at Dundalk Middle School last Thursday, she immediately turned to her daughter and reassured her, saying, “I forbid cancer to kill you.”
    Recalling that day, Tisa said that she didn’t quite understand the news until her mother explained it to her.
    Once she understood her diagnosis, Tisa admitted, she became scared.
    Realizing that she had to be honest with her daughter, Tracey kept Tisa informed every step of the way, making sure she understood every treatment and procedure.
    “I’ve always been very honest with all of my children,” Tracey explained, noting, “You fear what you don’t understand.”
    And there was a lot to try to understand, especially for someone as young as Tisa.
    Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, Tisa began chemotherapy treatments. Her last treatment was in July 2011.
    She also endured punishing rounds of radiation, which shrunk the tumor but also led to painful side effects and hair loss.
    Tisa concluded her radiation treatments last October.
    Throughout chemotherapy and radiation, Tisa continued to push herself to keep up in school, only missing two days of school due to treatments.
    She may not have missed even those days, Tracey noted, had she and Tisa’s doctors not forced Tisa to stay home from school.
    Even while undergoing her treatments, Tisa would bring her homework with her to the hospital.
    According to Tracey, Tisa’s hard work and determination were an inspiration to the older patients undergoing radiation treatments.
    “I really distinguished myself in radiation,” Tisa said proudly.
    While Tisa’s tumor could not be removed without killing her, treatment did shrink the tumor, killing the cancer.
    Tisa gave her mother the best present ever that year, going to remission on her mom’s birthday, Nov. 16.
    Now, nearly a year later, Tisa is thriving, though she continues to deal with complications from her brain tumor.
    Pressure on her optic nerve from the tumor  has damaged Tisa’s sight, causing her to loss her peripheral vision.
    As Tracey explained, Tisa’s vision will continue to worsen over time (no one is sure of the timeline) until she is completely blind.
    Tisa also suffers from pituitary gland disfunction and diabetes incipitus as a result of damage from the tumor.
    While she is still very much a normal kid, Tisa admits that having cancer did change her.
    “I actually changed after having cancer, I changed a lot,” she said, explaining, “I have become more mature and understanding.”
    Cancer impacted Tisa’s family as well. In addition to the emotional stress of having a sick family member, Tisa’s illness left her parents with little time to spent at home with her sisters.
    However, as Tracey explained, thanks to the support of friends and family, she was able to balance life while still managing Tisa’s illness.
    While Tracey credits family therapy and quality time with keeping her family strong through their ordeal, Tisa credits Tracey herself.
    When asked how she stays so positive in the face of adversity, Tisa smiled and pointed to her mom, simply saying, “her.”
    In addition to being honest and staying positive with Tisa, Tracey has tried to keep life as normal for possible for her daughter.
    Today, Tisa is a thriving seventh-grader at Dundalk Middle School, where she is taking all Gifted & Talented classes.
    A straight-A student before, during and after her cancer, Tisa uses magnifying devices and audio readers to help her in the classroom.
    In addition to her classes, Tisa has been active in a number of school clubs, including the robotics club, art club and Math 24 club. This year, Tisa is in the artists club for singing.
    She is also learning to read and write Braille, which she has studied since last year.
    In fact, it was one of her teachers, Julie Gaynor, who nominated Tisa for the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities Student of the Year Award.
    A teacher of students with visual impairments, Gaynor was Tisa’s Braille teacher last year.
    In a statement to The Eagle, Gaynor explained her reason for nominating Tisa, writing, “I nominated her for this award because she is an outstanding student who is a role model and an inspiration to everyone she meets.”
    The Commission on Disabilities agreed, naming Tisa Belcher as its 2012 Student of the Year.
    She was honored at an awards ceremony at the Hunt Valley Inn on Oct. 17.
    Upon hearing that she had won the award, Tisa noted that she was “surprised,” especially since she was unaware that she had been nominated.
    At the ceremony on Oct. 17, Tisa received her award from Fox 45-TV anchor Kathleen Cairns, who was master of ceremonies for the event.
    As Tisa recalled, as she mounted the stage to accept her award, Cairns began to cry.
    Hugging her, Tisa told her, “Don’t cry, you’ll make me start to cry.”
    Though she has been through a lot in the last 17 months, Tisa has come out on the other side stronger than ever.
    Her cancer is now in remission, Tisa is focused on her schoolwork and a possible career as either a teacher or speech pathologist (Tisa took speech classes for a severe speech impediment when she was younger).
    Meanwhile, her mom Tracey knows just how fortunate she is to have her daughter with her, happy and thriving.
    Reflecting on her family’s journey over the past year, Tracey explained, “[Cancer] puts things into perspective.”
    She continued, “At Hopkins, we would see infants with cancer who have no chance. But we had some hope. We are blessed.”