Meredith Veenstra, 6, sits in a salon chair at Profile Salon, soaking her feet in a pedicure basin and soaking her soul in the moment.
Moments of soothing and comfort have been rare for this kiddo, ever since she was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer that begins in the back of the eye, shortly after her fifth birthday.
On this day, though, cancer is far from her mind. In her mind, she’s a princess. She’s being pampered.
The salon’s Beautiful You program provides salon services for cancer patients of all ages.
After Meredith’s foot soak, she had her fingernails and toenails adorned in patriotic nail polish (her choice), then proceeded to a stylist station to get her hair fancied up.
Between services, she sat in a lobby chair, talking to adult cancer patients in the room. She’s an obvious breath of fresh air to them. She speaks innocently, matter-of-factly, about her medical journey.
She talks openly about her cancer and her prosthetic eye.
She’s a survivor. An energizer. An encourager. Somehow, in her short bursts of conversation, it feels as if she’s convinced that since she beat the cancer beast, anyone can.
The cancer beast
In June 2016, the cancer beast slipped into little Meredith’s life, hardly noticeable at first—a subtle, almost indiscernible, difference in how her eyes moved. Then the monster morphed, disguised under the cloak of a common childhood ailment.
“It looked like pink eye,” said Meredith’s mom, Bernadette Veenstra.
But pink eye typically resolves itself in a few days. This eye problem didn’t. The monster persisted.
“Her dad had noticed about a month before that her eye was straying sometimes, but didn’t think it was anything unusual,” Bernadette said. “He had twin sisters who had stray eyes. He just thought it was a kid thing.”
Kid things. That’s what Meredith was supposed to concern herself with—playing with friends, coloring, swinging, spinning somersaults in the yard.
Kid things. Balancing beams, balls, board games. Not cancer. There’s no place for cancer in a kid’s world.
“She kept living life as normal but she never said anything,” Bernadette said. “Then we learned she couldn’t see out of one eye.”
Kindergarteners are supposed to be looking at clocks and learning to tell time, looking at letters and learning how to compose words, looking at numbers and learning how to count.
At an ophthalmology appointment, Meredith’s family heard words no parent ever wants to hear, and information that didn’t add up.
“The ophthalmologist said our daughter had a tumor,” Bernadette said. “She basically said go home and spend the weekend with your daughter. Her saying that just totally shattered our world.”
The following Monday, they saw Thomas Aaberg, MD, a Spectrum Health retina specialist.
Dr. Aaberg diagnosed retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that begins in the back of the eye, most commonly in children. Fewer than 20,000 cases are recorded each year.
“It had taken over her entire retina,” Bernadette said. “It wasn’t like a solid tumor, but a bunch of little ones.”
The treatment? Removing Meredith’s eye.
“He broke it to us very compassionately,” Bernadette said. “It was awful, but not as bad as thinking she was going to die.”
On July 11, Dr. Aaberg removed Meredith’s left eye.
Then, little Meredith underwent chemotherapy to kill the aggressive cancer cells.
Bernadette home-schools Meredith and her other children—Brian, 15, Ethan, 14, and Elsie, 10—in their home on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But there are certain things she can’t teach. Like how to deal with cancer.
“It was very hard for the other kids, too,” Bernadette said. “I think they understood more about cancer than she did. We utilized Gilda’s Club and that was a wonderful resource for the entire family.”
But like Meredith’s spirit, her prognosis is strong.
“She ended up pretty much with the best scenario we could have hoped for,” Bernadette said.
Like many little girls, Meredith thinks, dreams and often acts like a princess.
Chemotherapy treatments caused most of her curly hair to fall out. But in her mind, and with the help of Beautiful You stylists, they’ve helped trim and shape her hair to keep her feeling like royalty.
“It’s just beautiful right now,” Bernadette said.
Meredith looks forward to her second-Monday-of-the-month appointments at Beautiful You. She hopes to someday volunteer there.
Bernadette has witnessed the way Meredith’s confidence grew once she had her hair styled at Beautiful You.
“They’re providing something that’s very necessary,” Bernadette said. “It’s very demoralizing to lose your hair on top of everything else you’re going through. It helps cancer patients gain confidence and feel beautiful. Meredith just loves going. They all make her feel very, very special.”
Pam Westers, owner of Profile Salon, launched Beautiful You four years ago. The program started with less than 10 women and now pampers 60 to 80 cancer patients every Beautiful You Monday.
“It makes their whole month,” Westers said. “They look forward to this appointment because all their other appointments are hospitals and doctors. They love the relationships they make here. It’s almost like a support group when they’re here. It revitalizes them for the whole month.”
Katie May, executive director of Beautiful You, said Meredith lights up the salon.
“She has this awesome spirit about her that makes everyone smile,” May said. “She’ll go sit and talk to people on the couch. She’s very intelligent. She’ll tell you stories like it is.”
May said Meredith has inspired salon staff to expand the Beautiful You program to include more young people.
“We don’t serve that many younger girls,” May said. “We’re acquiring a new building and want to expand our program to include a ‘princess for a day’ and serve young kids for a day. Meredith is kind of an inspiration in that area. We definitely welcome children and we love to have them.”