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Grace's Fight

By Chris Wescott

"I didn't have any headaches. I wasn't in pain. I was feeling… perfect.

"I didn't feel like anything was wrong with me."

Grace Eline was completely unaware, wrapped up in much more important matters, such as playing sports, enjoying time with friends, being a child.

The happy and energetic, young girl wasn't lethargic. There were no tangible signs of illness. The only sign her family picked up on was that she had been drinking a lot of water and her growth wasn't the same as the rest of the kids in her age group. So 10-year-old Grace underwent some tests.

"I noticed a switch one day that she was just drinking a lot of water," said Grace's mother, Aubrey. "You Google it and it's all these other little things like diabetes and all this, and pediatricians said she would deteriorate in a hot second so it's not. But then when her growth consistently slowed down and she was always off the charts, it was like, 'okay, you've been saying something's off now and there's actually something that's off, so let's go to the endocrinologist.'

"And that's where she ran a bunch of tests and everything pretty much came back fine. So you're like, 'oh, okay.'

"Nowhere ever in our brains was 'cancer' in there at all… like, never."

Despite green lights all the way, the endocrinologist suggested an MRI again - just to be safe.

"I mean, I didn't really understand what was wrong, because we had so many doctor appointments and I didn't even know what we were doing," said Grace. "So, it was kind of confusing to me."

"We didn't think anything of it," said Aubrey.

The Eline family didn't grasp the significance of the brain MRI until after it was done, but still didn't think anything serious would come from it.

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"I had never had an MRI before or I've never had to not eat [on the day of] tests," said Grace. "That kind of confused me and I got really like annoyed from it and I just didn't understand anything about it."

Throughout all the tests, the poking and prodding, Grace says the most annoying part of it all was not being able to eat her favorite food - pasta - on certain test days. And the MRI machine was also intimidating.

"Sometimes, I got really scared, like my first time [in the MRI machine] I was so scared and I just couldn't stay still because you're supposed to stay still. It really bothered me."

That MRI, as annoying as it was for Grace, helped paint the picture of why she was having issues and it provided a sinister diagnosis.

"That day she had that MRI, they called us, in essence, right away and said, 'you need to come in right now,'" said Aubrey.

The butterflies in the stomachs of Grace's parents began to flutter.

"My husband and I went in and we spoke to the endocrinologist, who did not look well when we got there," said Aubrey. "And we were like, 'okay, this must be serious because she doesn't look good. And she's the doctor.'"

The doctor told the parents that they had found a mass on her brain and, "you absolutely need to deal with it."

Heads spinning, Grace's parents listened in a fog as the doctor rapidly discussed next steps - where they'd go next, what procedures were to follow.

"We were just in complete and total shock," said Aubrey. "And I don't think it had even fully set in what she said at the time, because you're just in this blissfully unaware place. You know she had some issues but did not think the severity of it at all."

The Eline family began Googling Grace's tumor and immediately stopped, not wanting to spiral down the rabbit hole of what this meant for their daughter. Instead, the Elines rallied.

"My husband and I, we kind of decided, 'alright, we've got to kick into gear and figure this out.' And that's when we just hit the ground running."

As for Grace's initial reactions, she was more concerned about her passion for sports than her health.

"I mean, I was really sad cause I found out that I had to stop my softball and my gymnastics. So, it was not that fun for me," she said.

Leave it to a 10-year-old girl to blow your mind with her perspective on life.

Here's Grace Eline, a young and vibrant girl who has just been told she has brain cancer. And all she can think about is how she'll have to stop playing sports. Her biggest worry during testing was not being able to eat pasta.

"Yes," laughed Aubrey. "Fasting was tragic for her, which I can totally understand that." 

The gravity of the situation wasn't lost on her, but Grace just had different priorities and concerns. And she showed her amazing ability to look past the darkest times and think of the good. A lesson Grace can teach us all.

The Big Fight

"So, the first part of Grace's treatment was at the Valerie Fund at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center," said Aubrey. "And then the second part of her treatment was at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey."

The Elines were lucky to be just 20-30 minutes away from either treatment center and look back on their experience with gratitude.

"We honestly received world-renowned care."

The care Grace received at those facilities has made her steadfast in her plans to become a doctor when she grows up.

"It made me realize they do so much," said Grace. "I didn't realize that there were more than one type of doctor. I thought that there was just a regular doctor that you go to for your shots and your checkups. But then when I went to the hospital, I realized that there's so many levels and each level has so many divisions of doctors. That was pretty cool. And I realized that they do so much for people and I realized there's so many types of medical things."

There's no doubt in Grace's mother's mind that her daughter will be a doctor some day, all so she can help young kids go through what she went through.

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"It's if, it's when. When she becomes a doctor," said Aubrey. "I'm 100 percent. I would not be surprised. She said it one day when she was laying there and doing chemo. And she was like, 'I think I'm going to do that because I'll be really good at telling kids whether it's going to hurt or not because she said that wouldn't hurt and that hurt!'"

Aubrey allowed herself another chuckle and a smile at the memory.

"I think when she's a doctor, I won't be surprised. But I also think she'll be a good one because she'll be able to speak authentically to this was good and this was not so good and here's what to expect. I think she'll do a good job at that."

And Grace would certainly know what to expect.

Her first day of chemo was incredibly tough on the Eline family. They all went to the hospital to support her and there she was, "bopping around. She's cool, she's got her hair, she feels fine."

But chemo is cumulative and it breaks you down. And they knew what was coming.

10 days in, Grace loses her hair. 

"Having it literally falling out in your hands is a whole other experience. It's surreal."

But the Eline family once again rallied to Grace's side. Her little brother and her close friend shaved their heads. They demanded to shave their heads before Grace so she wouldn't have a bare head alone.

"That was a nice glimmer of hope that we had for a hot second," Aubrey said of the actions of Grace's brother and friend. "It really helped her not feel like she was this only kid on the island, going through this day in and day out. It's a lot. These treatments are daily."

Her brother would be by her side when she was vomiting in the hallway, bucket in hand, comforting his sister.

The dramatic, confusing and scary days piled up for the Eline family.

"Cancer is weird, and it is not nice," said Aubrey.

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"It was really hard not to focus on my stomach hurting or if I was in some sort of pain," Grace said, reflecting on the toughest moments of treatment.

"I would usually try to think about all the fun activities I would get to do at the hospital like painting and I would try and think about what I would paint when the art therapist came."

Grace also passed the time between treatments dancing to Pitbull or Taylor Swift, a common sight in the Eline household. But it wasn't always easy to have fun or look for positives.

"[My worst day] was when I got my picc line in, I think. I couldn't eat for the test and it was also the first time I couldn't drink at all. So I woke up really early and just didn't know what was going on and I had to wait a lot.

"I met with a lot of different doctors, which was really confusing, and I didn't really know what was happening. And on the last day of chemo, it just felt so long. I didn't really do much that day because I was so tired and I didn't feel good, so it felt longer than most days, even though it really wasn't."

The day Grace got her picc line put in sticks out the most to her mother as the worst day of her treatment, for multiple reasons.

"For our entire family, that was a very memorable day," Aubrey said. "It was surgery. It was very real because now she's got this thing in her arm, 24/7. Okay, now you can't shower like a regular person. You cannot do sports. You cannot swim.

"I think that's when that hit her and it hurt all of us, that you're not going to have a normal summer. She loves camp and swimming and the whole thing, and you're not going to have any of that this summer. And you can have a moment of, 'this is so not fair.'"

Grace's childhood was being stolen away by illness and there was nothing her family could do about it.

Again, leave it to Grace to put things in perspective.

"I remember sitting on her bed and she was like, 'if it happens to me, it doesn't happen to somebody else.'"

She was willing to take on the pain and frustrations of her ailment and the treatment in the hopes that the universe would somehow balance things out and spare some other child of the same difficulties.

"You can go to a very dark place," said Aubrey. "And again, we were going to find the light and find the positive and understand that it could be so much worse."

"It might soften a little, I imagine, as years pass and I know her scans will be clear, but I think it'll never fully go away."

Burned in the minds of Aubrey, and the rest of the Eline family are the shadows of Grace's battle with cancer. 

"I think that's the piece that we're all sort of dealing with," said Aubrey. "There's your life before cancer and your life after cancer. [That fear and uncertainty] is always going to be there. And I wish we could go back to April 8th, 2018, before we even knew she had a tumor."

But you can't.

"You finish treatment and you think you walk away and you're like, 'okay, we're totally going to be who we were that day before we learned anything. And you're not."

When Grace was given the all clear from the doctors, it was a moment that should have been celebrated immediately. But for the Eline family, even that wonderful and joyous occasion was clouded with a surreal feeling.

When her doctor called Grace's family she told them, "you can be happy."

But it was a weird thing to feel happy after all the uncertainty and struggle they had been through. But the doctor again reiterated.

"You can breathe."

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She told them they should go for ice cream. So they asked Grace if she'd like to do that, but she instead chose a hibachi dinner.

"Like, are we really going for hibachi because Grace doesn't have cancer and she's 10? Like, what? It was very surreal. But it also kind of marked an achievement that we made it through, that she had a positive outcome," said Aubrey.

"So you shake it off and are like, 'yeah, let's go be normal people for a night!' And it's so surreal. How do you move forward now? What's next?"

But it's been months since that hibachi dinner and the shadow of Grace's fight is still there.

As Aubrey goes on to explain, it's not necessarily a bad thing that Grace's battle with cancer sticks with them today. It became a rallying point for the Eline family and drove them to meet so many great people along the way. The doctors and hospital staff were there for them when they needed them the most. Their family members and friends stayed by their side to keep the darkness from overtaking them.

And for Grace, her situation is not one to throw into some box in the back of her head and throw away the key. She rallied from this as well.

"I think that the girl that I was when I started treatment, I think I was kind of like a wimp," she said, citing her fear of the medical tests and the challenge ahead of her.

 "And now, I just feel more strong. Nothing scares me anymore."

And then there was Grace.

A small figure, walking tentatively, yet confidently down the purple carpet to join the captains at center ice for a ceremonial puck drop on Hockey Fights Cancer Night in Newark. The Nov. 23 game at Prudential Center was a tribute to all of those who have lost the fight to cancer, those who have won, and those who are in the fight.

But Grace's story and her connection to the Devils began to shape the evening as a tribute to her strength, and to her.

Grace was signed to a one-day contract with the club by General Manager Ray Shero in his office ahead of the game. She read the starting lineup in the Devils locker room to cheers from the players and staff.

Days prior to the night, Grace skated out for practice with the Devils players and staff. She was nervous, but excited.

The former field hockey player hadn't had much experience with ice hockey, but she pushed forward and jumped on the ice regardless.

"I'd watched it a few times before and like I'd seen little clips of it and seen some friends that have played it," she said.

After experiencing the practice with the players, Grace became a bigger fan of the sport than before.

"I got to see how they practice and they seem like a pretty good team," she said with a smile.

And the exclusivity of the day was not lost on her young mind. Grace understood the opportunity to skate with an NHL team is not something the public generally gets to experience. So she soaked it all in, chatting with all the players and getting shooting tips from Jack Hughes, among others.

"I mean, I felt really happy because I realized that not everybody gets to do this kind of stuff," she said. "So I took advantage of it and I did all that I could.

"It's happy because this is like… it's kind of, for me, it's like a celebration. So that makes me happy."

Flash forward to Nov. 23 and Hockey Fights Cancer continued that celebration of Grace and her successful battle with cancer.

"It's an amazing experience, you know, to see Grace smile," her father Dan said. "Getting to meet players and seeing, really, how awesome the players were with interacting with her and how the whole community, the sports community, really kind of lights up to see us… to see the Devils put all of their effort behind [beating] cancer and [spreading] the awareness about it, is absolutely amazing."

It's hard not to reflect on the small, but mighty, symbol of this year's Hockey Fights Cancer initiative in Newark, and how far she's come from the first diagnosis.

"I mean, she's always cared for others," her mother said. "But I think it's on a whole different magnitude now. I think she realizes that she is fortunate and she is blessed and that this happened to her for a reason. I think she has taken it on herself to be the voice for other children. She's chosen that…

"She's come out of it stronger and able to understand the impact her life can have. And I think that's really taken her out of this sort of a little protected bubble and shown her what is out there and what she can do. I think it's really empowered her, which I think sounds maybe weird. But I do think it's really empowered her and she's grown up. I mean, most of these kids do grow up in this process but I think she now realizes the power she has to kind of pay it forward or help others, and make a difference in the world."

It's easy to look at a night like the one at Prudential Center last month and say it's great that these organizations around the NHL would do something like this. It's fantastic that money was raised and the spreading of awareness definitely matters.

But, honestly, it's Grace's story - and others like it - that are the ones that need to be told. Cancer affects so many families around the world that when someone like Grace can battle through and show it's not impossible and you can come out of it stronger - that is truly inspiring.

As Grace wrapped up her interview for this piece, she was asked if there was anything else she'd like to add.

Like the true professional, she smiled politely and said, "thank you, for having me."

No, Grace.

Thank you, for sharing your strength and wisdom, and for spreading happiness, positivity, and hope.