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This South Florida mom is battling cancer for the 4th time. She needs help at home

Miami Herald - 12/7/2022

Francesca Blackshear is a fighter.

The three-time cancer survivor says her children and a will to live are what motivate her.

As her son Matthew, 7, plays chef, feeding her pizza, broccoli and other dishes inside a classroom at Arc Broward in Sunrise, Blackshear asks him math questions. He gets it right every time. The 37-year-old mother and her daughter Makayla, 9, talk about the time they went to Off the Wall, a trampoline park. It's one of their favorite memories.

While posing for a family portrait, Blackshear catches Matthew sticking out his tongue, even without looking at him. It's that special power moms have. The kids are her life and she wants them to enjoy the holidays and not worry about her upcoming surgery.

Because her cancer is back, this time in her lungs.

Blackshear was diagnosed with cancer a few months after giving birth to Matthew in 2015. She had a pain in her leg, and at the prompting of her boss, went to see the doctor. The diagnosis? Synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects the tissue around your joints.

There was a risk she could lose her leg. Thankfully, a specialist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami made sure she didn't.

After surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer was gone, but recovery took a long time. Blackshear had to learn how to walk again, just as Matthew was beginning to take his first steps. Then in 2017, less than a year after her last chemo treatment, Blackshear was diagnosed with therapy-induced acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, which doctors told her was caused by the chemo treatment.

So she fought again. Whenever the treatment felt like it had become too much, and she was lying in bed, exhausted, Blackshear said she would hear her daughter Makayla.

"I just remember hearing her little voice throughout the night or during the day, just saying, 'Mommy, I'm right here. Mommy, do you need anything? Mommy, I love you. Mommy don't go,'" Blackshear recalled. "And so I was just like, 'I can't go. No matter how hard the treatment ... I just can't leave this little baby."

So she would get up.

Because Blackshear is a fighter. And her kids needed her.

Makayla, who Blackshear calls her "helper," has been there every step of the way. When mom felt too weak to get Matthew's bottle, Makayla would get it. When mom needed help getting dressed, Makayla was there. The young Blackshear wants to be a doctor when she grows up to help care for people who, like her mom, are diagnosed with cancer.

Blackshear's family and other loved ones were there for her too. In 2017, when she was dealing with her second bout of cancer and needed a bone marrow transplant, her best friend from high school created a GoFundMe that raised $10,100 to help cover Blackshear's pricey medical costs and assist the family with living expenses.

While seeking a donor, Blackshear learned that there weren't enough bone marrow donors. The doctors weren't sure she would find a match. She was lucky though. Her sister was a perfect match.

She had to stay in the hospital for weeks, away from her kids, while her immune system recovered, only seeing them through FaceTime.

"It has been a journey," said the technical writer and aviation enthusiast. "I mean, I talked about learning how to walk again, but it was a lot like being able to be independent once more, learning how to use the restroom, taking a shower, getting dressed, learning how to cook for myself."

Her son was eventually diagnosed with autism. Her daughter, an anxiety disorder. And then Blackshear got cancer again and again, this time in her lungs. Now, as her fourth surgery nears, the single mother of two is trying to stay optimistic. This year, she was able to stop taking anti-rejection medicine. (Her liver had been rejecting the transplant, but it seems to be normalizing, she said.)

Now that she's no longer taking the immunosuppressants, the hope is that her body will be able to "fight whatever cancer might be there," she said. She's taking a chemo pill now, which causes fewer side effects than the previous treatment.

Arc Broward, a Sunrise-based nonprofit that offers services for children and adults with developmental disabilities, has been providing Blackshear with respite care for Matthew since August 2019. He goes to the center to participate in activities with other kids. Other times, staff is sent to the family's home to help him with homework, develop his social skills and do a host of other activities, like exercise, while giving his mom a break to focus on her own care, said Shaun Preston, the vice president of Children's Services at Arc Broward.

Preston said the nonprofit nominated Blackshear for Wish Book this year because the single mother continues to be the pillar of support for her family, despite the health challenges she's facing.

Blackshear "has tremendous initiative and motivation ... Despite challenges that she experiences, she tries to always remain very positive and upbeat for herself and for her children," said Preston.

"She just wants to find ways and solutions to meet her own needs and her children's needs and unfortunately, she's not in a position to do that alone," said Preston. "We're really hoping that the community can embrace her and her family and make a huge difference."

Blackshear doesn't know yet how much her upcoming surgery and treatment will cost during this battle with synovial sarcoma. She knows it will be during the holidays and that insurance likely won't cover everything. Her wish this year is for her family to have financial stability during this difficult time.

Her ask is for people to donate money to help cover cancer treatment and recovery costs, including a caretaker who can help around the house and make meals while she recovers. And to provide Christmas gifts for her kids.

"I want to see my daughter's graduation. ... I want to see her get married. ... I want to help my son. I want to be able to just raise my children and spend time with my family," said Blackshear. "And that pushes me, because it's not easy."

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