Josalin Dunn is not your average 8-year-old girl. It’s not because she comes from a family of seven children. It is not because she has cancer. It is because she has remained bright-eyed and optimistic — despite the twists and turns she has had to endure during her young life in Fort Meyers, Fla.
One of her favorite phrases among friends and family is, “If you’re having a really bad day and you found out you have cancer, dance anyway!”
In January 2005 at age 7, Josalin was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma. She had seven rounds of chemotherapy before being taken to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to have her tumor and a third of her stomach removed.
After surgery, Josalin and her family were told that she had been misdiagnosed and that her cancer was actually gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST).
When Josalin found out that she had cancer she had mixed feelings, “I felt confused and a little scared because they told me I had to go to the hospital a lot.” She goes for her scans every three months and like many Life Rafters, doesn’t like it a bit, “I have to go up to St. Petersburg and drink some nasty stuff, [it tastes like] a really disgusting milkshake.”
But life is not all scans and hospital visits for Josalin. Not only has she recently entered the third grade, which she admits is a little bit harder than second grade, but she also has many extracurricular activities to keep her happy and busy. “I just finished my soccer season and I’m starting softball and basketball. I also do modern and hip hop [dancing]. I have a little Christmas recital. The outfits are really cute, I’m a little nervous I might do something wrong, but I’m ready to go.”
Mom Jennifer is not worried about her daughter’s performance. “When she’s behind the camera she really cuts loose.”
You might not expect this behavior from a middle child. Out of the seven children in the Dunn clan, Josalin is right in the middle. The middle child often clamors for attention that goes to the oldest and youngest siblings, but not Josalin. “Being the middle is special, because lots of people have an even family and they are at the end or at the beginning, I like being half old and half young.”
Just as Josalin’s days were not always sad, they were also not always this happy. When she was misdiagnosed with Ewings sarcoma, she was subjected to unnecessary chemotherapy. When they finally realized that her doctors had been wrong, she had already undergone seven rounds, which made her hair fall out and caused her to be ill. Her parents experienced the whole range of emotions.
“Initially we were thrilled that it was different and the chemo was over,” says her mom. “Then we were like, wait, she never needed it in the first place? She had to suffer all that and, in terms of long-term effects, we have issues we may have to deal with? We thought: Is there somebody we should be suing, I know it’s a sue-happy society, but when an injustice is done to your child, you are hurt.”
After speaking to the doctors, the Dunns reevaluated their position, “They weren’t looking for GIST, so when it matched up with Ewings, they had no reason to run the other tests. What’s gotten me and [Troy] through all of this is faith — maybe we were supposed to experience this for a reason. Josalin’s future looks brighter now and the end result could have been much worse. Everybody did the best they could with the knowledge they had. We just found a way to deal with it.”
Josalin was very glad to hear she had the “better cancer.” The idea of any more surgery made her cry. When she was told that the chemo was unnecessary, her response was simple and poignant, “I went to all this trouble for nothing?”
Josalin does not take her “better cancer” for granted. She wants to keep herself and others informed about her disease, “I think I know a bunch, me and my teacher read [the Life Raft Group Pediatric GIST pamphlet] to the students. I think they understood part of it and there were a few questions, but they mostly got it. I want to learn as much as I can, so if anything comes up, I’m ready!”
Josalin’s perseverance has helped her conquer the problems that came her way. She even has different techniques to tackle them. “[When I have bad days] I like to stick my face in my pillow and say, ‘Calm down, it’ll be over pretty soon.’”
Her mother reflects on her strength by recalling one of the many visits Josalin made to Memorial Sloan-Kettering, “She had surgery on a Monday, she was discharged on a Friday and was walking around Time Square on Saturday. She seemed to bear it all fairly well.”
With all that Josalin endured, she has never been alone. Her support system is vast and generous. Not only is her family a part of this network but also several teachers, an elderly couple from her church and all of her friends, “I have quite a few friends, I think I might have six best friends: Danielle, Maddie, Lauren, Camri, Brady, and Sami K. I’m getting support from lots of people! When I wasn’t feeling good, Sami K got me a present and came to the hospital. Everyday that I had to get a shot, my brother came to the hospital and held my hand so I could squeeze it.”
Josalin’s experiences have given her a fresh outlook on her future, “I hope that I’ll have some wavy hair that’s pretty long and I hope I won’t have to get anymore scans and I hope that other people in my family don’t get cancer.”
Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series on the youth of the Life Raft Group. It was written by Life Raft staffer Erin Kristoff, with help from Josalin Dunn and her mother, Jennifer.