Cancer-free 11 years, Meleah Darland, her family share their strength

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

Meleah Darland was just 2½ years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

She underwent three years of treatment that included chemotherapy and radiation. In the years that followed, Meleah had countless follow-up appointments and blood draws.

To her family's relief, everything came back normal.

Today, Meleah is 11 years in remission. She's a healthy 16-year-old who thrived during her freshman year at Evergreen High School. She played volleyball and expects to do so again this fall. She did well in her classes and is learning to drive. This fall, she will be part of a mentor program that pairs Evergreen students with students at Burton Elementary School.

"It went pretty good," Meleah said of her first year of high school.

Meleah and her family were featured in The Columbian in January 2003. At the time, Meleah was about six months from completing treatment. Her father, Ron Darland, had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and was undergoing his own nine-month course of treatment.

For six months, Ron and 4-year-old Meleah accompanied each other to treatment. Ron has been cancer-free since wrapping up his treatment in June 2003.

It's painful, said Laura Darland, to see your husband struggle while fighting cancer. It's even more painful to see your young daughter face the same fight.

"It takes its toll, for sure," Laura said. "We walked one day at a time and asked the Lord for a lot of strength."

Meleah only knows what her parents have told her in the years since.

"I don't really remember most of it because I was so young," she said.

Instead, Meleah knows the involvement she and her family have had with organizations as a result of her diagnosis 14 years ago, Laura said.

They were involved for several years with Candlelighters For Children With Cancer, a nonprofit that serves families of children with cancer. And earlier this summer, Meleah and her younger sister, 12-year-old Hillary, again attended Camp Millennium, a camp for cancer survivors and their siblings, in Roseburg, Ore.

Serving in Africa

At the end of June, Meleah, Laura and Hillary set off for a three-week humanitarian trip to Zambia.

"We thought that would be a good opportunity to serve on the world stage," Laura said.

Ron, who stayed home with the family dogs, was happy his daughters got to experience another culture, despite his own fear and trepidation about them being so far away.

"It's a celebration," Ron said of the trip.

The Darlands were invited by a couple of Laura's friends from college and spent most of their trip at a school and two orphanages. They spent a lot of time with the Zambian youth, playing games and learning about their lives.

"They are a lot like us, in more ways than I realized," Meleah said. "They love to take selfies. Mostly all of them have Facebook. They like to do the same things we like to do."

Meleah and Hillary also performed community service projects with a local church youth group. They picked up garbage during a neighborhood cleanup event and helped clean the church. They also painted an office for a new well-building project.

Hillary enjoyed seeing the differences in lifestyles. In Zambia, people carry things on their heads, carry babies on their backs and work all day barefoot, she said.

"I liked seeing the culture and seeing the things they did daily and getting to be a part of that," Hillary said.

About a week into the trip, Laura left the girls with her friends and met up with another friend living in Uganda. Together, the two women — both parents of cancer survivors — climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

"If our kids can survive and fight great battles, we can fight to climb a great mountain together," Laura said.

The climb was a physical test for Laura. While she's climbed most of the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, she had never climbed anything as high or with as harsh of conditions as Kilimanjaro. The pair took eight days to summit the mountain.

"The climb was just really amazing," she said.

Before beginning their several-days-long trek back to the U.S., the girls went on an overnight safari. They saw giraffes, zebras, monkeys, gazelles and countless other animals in their natural habitat, Laura said.

Overall, Laura said, the trip was a wonderful experience for everyone.

Meleah's years-long leukemia fight showed Laura how fragile life can be. Now that Meleah is healthy, Laura wants her to live her life to the fullest.

"I really believe in the human spirit," Laura said. "We take what's given to us and overcome."