Cleburne cancer survivor aspires to help others by modeling

Sara Brooks faces the camera head-on, knowing there's no way to hide the scars left by cancer.

She aspires to be a model, but there's more to her goal than appearing on a magazine cover. She wants to show cancer survivors that anything is possible.

"Everyone is beautiful in their own way," said Brooks, 28, of Cleburne. "I'm living proof of that."

Brooks was 2 when her mother noticed that her eyes did not look level. At first, doctors thought it was a lazy eye, but soon Belinda Ford learned that her daughter had something much more serious. The little girl had rhabdomyosarcoma, a fast-growing, highly malignant tumor growing in the sinus cavity under her left eye.

"The doctor told me he didn't think she was going to make it," Ford said.

Brooks doesn't remember a lot about the two years of chemotherapy and radiation. But it soon became clear to her mother that the toddler was quite a fighter, despite her frail condition.

By the time she was 4, Brooks was cancer-free. But the treatments had forever changed her life.

Radiation had damaged her thyroid gland and stunted her growth, leaving her a head shorter than her peers. One side of her face didn't match the other, and instead looked more like a skeleton.

"Basically one side of her face didn't grow because of all the radiation she had," Ford said.

The radiation also caused her left eye to stop producing tears. It became so sensitive to light that she could not go outside without sunglasses and a hat, Ford said. Over the next two years, Brooks lost her vision in the damaged eye.

"Right before they took my eye out, I don't remember being able to see out of it at all," Brooks said.

After her eye was removed, Brooks was given a prosthetic. But it was always uncomfortable and she had trouble keeping it in the socket. After several surgeries, she stopped wearing the glass eye entirely.

For the one of every 480 U.S. young adults who survives childhood cancer, life comes at a price. Treatment can interfere with a child's physical, developmental or cognitive growth and can cause psychological trauma and secondary cancers later in life.

"The long-term cost of curing a child can sometimes be quite substantial," said Dr. Daniel Bowers, a pediatrician with the After Cancer Experience at Children's Medical Center in Dallas. "And some of the effects of being a cancer survivor are not recognized until survivors are in their 20s, 30s or 40s."

ACE is the oldest and largest comprehensive survivor program in Texas and it follows about 1,800 childhood cancer survivors from ages 3 to 62.

For Brooks, the treatment caused physical deformities that led to so many reconstructive surgeries that she lost count. At one point, doctors used fat and blood veins from her hip to improve the appearance of her sunken cheek. They also made several attempts to lengthen her jaw bone.

Brooks' medical ordeal is not uncommon for children with rhabdomyosarcoma, who also often have trouble swallowing and problems with hormones.

"Even though we are able to cure most children with rhabdomyosarcoma, [they] continue to struggle with the long-term side effects," Bowers said.

For Brooks, the effects of treatment made it difficult to attend school with kids who made fun of her appearance. Although she learned to laugh it off -- even using her glass eye as a Halloween prop -- she still felt isolated. It was only at a camp for childhood cancer survivors that she felt accepted by others.

Amanda Comstock met Brooks at camp, and said she was a determined person even back then.

"When she puts her mind to something, she does it," said Cornstock, 27. "She is beautiful inside and out to me."

In January, Brooks plans to attend Tarrant County College and hopes to become an X-ray technologist. She is also committed to putting a positive face on cancer survivorship and speaks out on the subject as a volunteer with the American Cancer Society.

Brooks sees modeling as a way to give back to society. Initially, she wasn't sure it was even possible, but she recognized the value of showing other cancer survivors that no goal is off limits. She started building a portfolio and got feedback from photographers impressed with her drive.

She has been in a few local photo shoots, nothing big so far. She will be in a calendar of cancer survivors and appears on a website for models, where her page is loaded with photos and comments from others inspired by her story.

"A lot of survivors think that if they have had cancer, that nobody will want them," she said. "But I want to show people that if they want something bad enough, they can achieve it."

Childhood cancer takes a toll but it can also have a beneficial outcome, Bowers said, with survivors often developing resiliency and a positive outlook.

Brooks said cancer indeed gave her a purpose.

When she started modeling, she said she felt ugly in front of the camera. But then she had a change in attitude and stopped hiding so others would see that they could face cancer too.

"I decided to use my face to my advantage, and make it art," she said.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664