Melissa Grason, the 18-year-old Valencia High School student and terminal cancer patient honored with a parade and community reception on Aug. 4, died Monday after a two-year battle.
In mid-June, the award-winning Special Olympics athlete’s doctors at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles told her parents, Jim and Marianne Grason, that their daughter had fewer than 90 days to live. They were by her side when she died shortly before 9 p.m. Monday.
“We’ve been grieving for two years since she was diagnosed with cancer and going through all the surgeries and the chemos and the stuff that kept knocking her down,” Jim Grason said Tuesday afternoon. “That was our grieving period. When she passed peacefully last night, it’s like a weight was lifted off.”
Melissa Grason, who had Down Syndrome, was diagnosed in 2010 with Stage IV Wilm’s Tumor, a deadly cancer affecting her abdomen, chest and lungs. After aggressive surgeries and chemotherapy in 2010 and again in 2011, and experimental treatment this spring, Grason’s body stopped responding as the cancer continued to grow.
“In my previous post, I asked all of you to pray that God would end Melissa’s suffering and take her quickly,” Jim Grason wrote on his daughter’s Caring Bridge online donations page early Tuesday morning. “I am blessed to say that our prayers were answered. Just before 9 p.m. (Monday) night, with her mother holding one of her hands and myself holding the other, our little Angel was called home to be with God. Her life is a testament to all that is good. Each day we have with our loved ones is a gift and should NEVER be taken for granted.
“While this may seem cliche’, I implore all of you that have followed Melissa’s journey over the past two years through this horrible disease to really let this idea drive the way you live your lives and the way you love,” Grason continued. “Melissa would be honored to know that her legacy is as simple as having faith in God and truly understanding the concept of Love.
“We will miss her spirit each day for the rest of our lives, but we will cherish the lessons we have all learned from simply knowing her. Rest in peace our darling daughter……….We look forward to being with you again one day on the other side.
All our love now and forever,
Mom & Dad”
Two years ago, Jim Grason said, Melissa came downstairs from her room, doubled over in pain. “We know something was really wrong,” he said.
Doctors at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles performed a CAT scan. “There was a tumor the size of an eggplant that they took out of her, and she was already in Stage IV when she was diagnosed,” Jim Grason said. “She wouldn’t have lasted probably another two weeks back then. That’s where the skills and the surgeons at Childrens Hospital come in. Dr. Cathy Shin was her surgeon and is just incredible at what she does.”
But the cancer recurred. Relentlessly.
“There was a more aggressive chemo treatment after a second surgery,” Grason said. “We almost lost Melissa two or three times because of illnesses or repercussions of the chemotherapy when she didn’t have an immune system. We were down at Childrens almost every Friday through Tuesday. You could almost schedule it on the calendar. The chemo would knock her white blood cell count down and she would get a blood infection, and we’d have to take her down and put her in isolation and pump her back up and fill her full of antibiotics and bring her back.
“They call it the ‘cancer coaster,’ for people that have kids with cancer,” Grason said. “‘Welcome to the cancer coaster’ was one of the first things parents at Childrens Hospital said to us. They’d been through it with their kids, and said, “It’s going to be up and down, and they’ll fill you full of hope and your legs will get knocked out from under you.’ And that was kind of exactly what happened over the last two years.”
The clinical trials of experimental drugs may have prolonged Melissa’s life, but also prolonged her agony, and showed there was no cure in her case.
“Six months ago when we got down to the last offer to do a trial for a new clinical drug, we opted to say, ‘Look, there’s no longer a cure, that’s not gonna happen, right?'” Grason said. “And they said, ‘Yes, we can hold off the inevitable but it might buy us some time,’ and our response was, ‘At what expense? Her quality of life?’ She’s going to be in a bed, sick to her stomach all the time, she’s not going to have any energy, she’s going to lose her hair, again, for the third time, and we finally said enough.
“So we stopped treatment, and said now we’re going to go have fun, and we’re going to cram a lot of living into the next six months,” Grason said. “So Melissa’s been on a cruise, she turned 18 so she’s been to Morongo and Chumash gambling. She fell in love with the slot machines Ghostbusters, Sex in the City and Cougarlicious. She was a character when it came to spending money, like her mom. She’s been para-sailing, we put her on a Harley, she’s driven an airboat. We rented a place on the beach in Florida for a month and let her swim. We bought a boat and let her drive it, she had dolphins swimming next to her in the boat. We just crammed a lot of times to put a smile on her face.”
grason_paradeoneThe Grasons and family friends including Mark Latner, Jackie Hartman and Marisa Watkins organized a special parade for Melissa on Saturday, Aug. 4. Her mother bought her a new dress and tiara and a sash that said “princess.”
As they took Melissa for a drive around the city in a turqoiuse 1957 Thunderbird, local residents began to show up at the Grasons’ home on Skycrest Circle Drive in Valencia.
By the time Melissa arrived, escorted by a CHP motorcycle officer, deputies from the SCV Sheriff’s Station and a fire engine from Company 111, hundreds of community members dressed in pink, her favorite color, had gathered on the street to welcome her home.
“We were already (treating her) every four hours with Vicodin for the pain in her chest because the tumors grew and were putting pressure on her lungs,” Grason said. “She was in pain but always managed to bring her A-game. She was just a fighter like that. When Mark said, ‘Here, throw candy, it’s your parade, Princess,’ she was having more fun throwing bubble gum than anything else.”
Melissa was completely surprised by the parade, Grason said. “She thought she was just going for a ride with Mark. He took her out early and then all the people showed up with the balloons, so it just all came together. The planets obviously lined up for that. We showed her the video a number of times and she would just laugh and giggle and say, ‘That was so cool.’ So it kept putting a smile on her face as we kept playing it back to her over and over again.”
Grason said the Aug. 4 parade was “really the last hurrah for her, ’cause that’s when started to decline was a week ago Saturday, and then left us last night. We fought the good fight, we did what we could, we had a great support system with all of her friends and Special Olympics people and Dance Studio 84, with the support and the outpouring of the community. We are deeply grateful to everyone in the community that helped pull it off.”
Grason said the family is planning a celebration of Melissa’s life, but arrangements are still pending.
For more information about Melissa Grason’s battle with cancer, visit her Caring Bridge page.