SANDRA STEWART of Mayfair was shocked when her daughter, Corin, who had just celebrated her fifth birthday, awoke on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 20, 2009, with a protruding left eye.
Stewart took Corin to a pediatric eye specialist at Holy Redeemer Hospital. "He tells me right away that there's a tumor behind her left eye and it could be cancer," Stewart said.
After a CAT scan at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children and a biopsy at Wills Eye Institute, Stewart said: "The doctors told us it was malignant. At the time, I'm three months' pregnant with our son. I'm a total mess."
The malignant tumor (rhabdomyosarcoma) was wrapped around nerves behind Corin's left eye. "Thank God, it hadn't gotten to her brain but it was heading there," Stewart said. "The doctors told us they couldn't remove all of it during the biopsy because they were trying to save the eye."
While Corin underwent 42 weeks of chemotherapy from February to November, her doctors recommended proton-radiation therapy, which precisely focuses a beam of radiation at the target tumor to avoid damaging surrounding tissue.
The problem was that the nearest available proton-radiation facility was more than 900 miles away in Jacksonville, Fla.
While health insurance would pay medical expenses and Ronald McDonald House would put the family up in Jacksonville, the Stewarts couldn't afford the plane trip.
"Money was tight," said Stewart, a receptionist at a Center City law firm who took unpaid family medical leave to care for Corin. Her husband, Jeff, who builds and repairs wheelchairs, was paying the mortgage, utilities and household expenses. "Where were we going to come up with $2,000?" Stewart asked.
Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation - which began in 2000 when cancer patient Alexandra "Alex" Scott, 4, sold lemonade in front of Penn Wynne Elementary to raise money for all children with cancer - stepped in and paid the travel expenses for Corin, her mom and her mom's sister, who helped take care of both of them during the weeks of proton-radiation therapy.
That trip was a lifesaver.
Tomorrow, in gratitude, Corin, now 9 and a third-grader at St. Matthew School, and her family will host an Alex's Lemonade Stand from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in front of Corin's dad's favorite hoagie place, Marinucci's Deli on St. Vincent Street near Brous Avenue, which is donating 10 cases of lemonade from Canada Dry, Herr's potato chips, and 200 mini pretzels from the Pretzel Factory.
"The little girl we're doing it for is from St. Matt's over here on Cottman Avenue," said owner Nancy Marinucci. "We've been here 21 years, just a family store in a family neighborhood, and we love everybody and everybody loves us. Her mom called me and I said, 'Sure.' "
In that same community spirit, Rita's Water Ice on Rhawn Street near Loretto and Dattilo's Delicatessen at Bustleton and Rhawn are donating water ice. People who can't stop by can contribute online at http://ph.ly/lemonade.
Happy and high-spirited today, Corin does not look like a kid who had 25 proton-radiation treatments in March and April 2009, plus five surgeries since first being diagnosed. One surgery last year removed cataracts that developed from radiation treatments and caused blindness in her left eye.
"She can see one day and then all of a sudden she can't see," Stewart remembered. "That's when they discovered the cataracts. Today, she has 20-60 vision, which is a miracle."
Actually, Stewart said, Corin's whole recovery is a miracle.
"It was both very stressful and very hopeful," Stewart said. "Through it all, we kept our faith. If you don't have faith, what have you got? Corin was on prayer lists at my husband's Baptist church in Holmesburg, which went all around the world, and she was in St. Matthew's bulletin. People were praying for her constantly and I think that's what got us through."
Corin's left eyelid, which has already had two surgeries, will require another in the future to fully correct it. "Sometimes," Stewart said, "Corin flips out and says, 'If I'd never had cancer, I wouldn't look like this.' I tell her, 'You're beautiful,' because she is."
Years of enduring an IV for her many MRIs and having blood drawn for every oncology appointment has left Corin anxious about ongoing visits to doctors. "But once they tell her, 'The needle's coming so just take a deep breath,' she's fine," Stewart said.
"If you didn't know what she's been through, Corin looks like a normal, down-to-earth, happy kid today," Stewart said. "Every now and then, we get that girl attitude. She can be too much of a mother hen to her little brother, who is 3. I'm like, 'Corin, you're not his mother.' "
Stewart laughed. "If things continue to go well," she said, "next year, Corin will be considered five years cancer-free. She is thriving."