Shariah M Sweet Sixteen and Cancer Free

“Cancer didn’t have Shariah. Shariah had cancer—and she’s now been cancer-free for three years.”

No parent wants to hear that their child has cancer. In fact, “children” and “cancer” are two words that nobody ever wants to hear uttered in the same breath.

Unfortunately, childhood cancer does occur, and, when it does, having a knowledgeable, experienced, compassionate health care team can make all the difference in the world.

Comprehensive cancer care should go beyond surgery and medical treatments to help children and their families navigate the many physical, psychological, spiritual and practical aspects of their diagnosis and all that it entails.

Shariah's Journey

Nobody knows this better than Shareen Henderson and her daughter, Shariah Marsden, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Undifferentiated Embryonal Sarcoma of the Liver (UESL) in August 2018, when she was just 11 years old.

Shariah had been suffering from stomach pains and had a distended abdomen, so her mother took her to Newark Beth Israel Medical Center’s pediatric emergency center.

“It was a Sunday morning,” Henderson recalls. “On Monday, she was rushed to emergency surgery.” The abdominal mass removed during surgery was the size of a basketball.

Surabhi Batra, MD
Surabhi Batra, MD

As if mother and daughter weren’t bewildered enough already, that Friday, when Henderson took Shariah to a follow-up appointment at the Valerie Fund Children’s Center at NBI, they were told by pediatric hematologist-oncologist Surabhi Batra, MD, that Shariah’s cancer was stage 4—and it was very aggressive.

“She took us into a private room with her team—Dr. Bhatla, Dr. DeBenedictis and Nurse Kelly,” says Henderson. “We were in shock. I couldn’t process it. I had to have Dr. Batra call my aunt and sisters to help me understand.”

Shariah, however, proved to be remarkably pragmatic and resilient—and a source of strength for her mother.

“After processing her diagnosis, she was ready to fight,” says Henderson. “I can honestly say that if she wasn’t as strong as she was, there is no way I would have made it through.”

Because Shariah’s cancer was so aggressive, treatment started almost immediately.

“The first step was chemo,” says Henderson. “It was administered in the hospital for five consecutive days every three weeks. I called Newark Beth our vacation home.”

Shariah’s treatments, which included 30 consecutive days of radiation followed by a final week of chemotherapy, lasted six months.

“It was the hardest thing in my life,” Henderson says of her daughter’s diagnosis and the immediate aftermath. “Watching her lose her hair, throwing up from treatment, not being able to attend school, getting blood transfusions—it was an emotional roller coaster. I did a lot of praying and crying.”

Shariah, says her mom, “was a champion. The first time her hair came out, we were preparing for her 12th birthday gathering,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to do. Shariah said, ‘It’s no problem, Ma; I’ll wear a scarf.’”

Shariah’s health care team at the Valerie Fund Children’s Center at NBI was “second to none,” says Henderson. “And Nurse Kelly was phenomenal. She had everything laid out for me—every medication, its side effects, everything. She put my mind at ease.”

Sweet 16 and Cancer-Free

Four years after her diagnosis, Shariah, who celebrated her Sweet 16 in September, is a junior at Bard Early College in Newark, where she’s a straight-A student who is at the top of her class, with a 4.025 GPA.

“Cancer didn’t have Shariah,” says Henderson. “Shariah had cancer—and she’s now been cancer-free for three years.”

Learn more about Pediatric Cancer Services at The Valerie Fund Children's Center at The Children’s Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center or call us at 973-926-7161.