Celebrating A Cancer-Free Christmas
By: Lisa Patrick
About two and a half years ago, Briar Howell and her family got some horrible news. Three-year-old Briar had been diagnosed with leukemia. Although her parents tried to keep everything as normal as possible, there were some things that just could not be the same. But this year, “Warrior Princess” Briar has beaten cancer and is looking forward to the first “normal” Christmas in her memory.
Briar’s mother, Gina Howell, said that it’s nice to be able to get back to a “real normal.” They’ve spent the past couple of years scheduling all of their activities around chemo treatments and trying to estimate the days that Briar might be feeling bad so that they would be at home, especially during the week when she was on steroids. However, Briar “never complained” about any of it. Howell said that she was “just as happy as could be” even when she was in treatments or when she was sick or in pain. Her family and the staff at HOOPS Children’s Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia where Briar went for treatments were amazed at how brave she was through her entire battle against cancer. The HOOPS staff were the ones to give Briar the nickname, “Warrior Princess.”
Christmas the past couple of years has looked pretty different for the Howell family. The first Christmas after her diagnosis, COVID precautions were in place. When added to the immunity complications that Briar was experiencing, the family opted to stay home and open gifts with family through FaceTime. Last year, they did get to visit with family for Christmas, but Briar had to wear a mask the entire time. This is one of the things that she is glad to be rid of after beating cancer. She gets to go places and “not be the only kid wearing a mask.”
Back in September, Briar got to “ring the bell” at HOOPS signifying the end of her chemo treatments. The entire community celebrated with her and her family. They created a huge parade that went from Bridges Church on Diedrich Boulevard all the way to Super Quik in Flatwoods. There were people lined up all along the route waving and cheering, and she got to see some of her friends from school in the crowd.
When asked what she is most excited to do now that she has finished all of her cancer treatments, she proudly exclaimed, “Eat salad!” This was something that she was only allowed to do at home before finishing her treatments. When neutropenia was an issue, they had to make sure that “everything was washed very well” before she could have a salad. Now, she is excited that she can order a salad at a restaurant.
This year, Briar got to go to Disney World courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and was “treated like royalty,” per Howell. She never had to wait in line for the characters or the rides, so the family just went “nonstop the whole time.” While at Disney, Briar saw the toys that she decided she would ask Santa Claus to get her for Christmas. On Christmas morning, Briar received the Rapunzel and Cinderella castles that she had started dreaming about months before.
This Christmas, the family also got to see Briar sit on Santa’s lap for the first time since she was three. She got to talk with Santa at both the Marathon Fire Department Christmas party and the Wurtland Fire Department Christmas party. Besides getting to see Santa Claus, Briar was also excited that “the Grinch came to school” even though it was “just someone dressed up.”
Briar spent this Christmas with all of her family (“without masks!”), and she was most excited to “see Grandma and Papaw.” She left sprinkle cookies and milk for Santa and made reindeer food and left some carrots for his reindeer. She got to spend “lots of time with family.”
The day after Christmas, the family went to Florida with some of their friends where her brother, Noah Danner, will play baseball again. Going into the New Year, the family is most looking forward to Briar having surgery on January 16th to get her mediport removed. Right now, Briar is still having to take antibiotics three times a week because of the port but will be able to stop them once it is out.
Howell said that without the support of the community, “we may not have gotten this far.” She said that all of the fundraisers and financial support that the family has been blessed with made it possible for them to be able to pay all of Briar’s medical bills “so far.” This was such a “huge blessing” because “even if we had set up monthly payments, it would have still been more than our mortgage.”
Briar’s family considers her to be “nothing short of a miracle.” Even though she went through such a “terrible time,” she was “such an inspiration to others” that they “can’t wait to see what she does in the future.”
Briar will still have to get monthly blood work done to watch for signs that the cancer may come back, but it still does not dampen her spirits. A few days before the holiday, Briar said, “Mom, do you know what I want the most for Christmas? Joy with my family.”