BY CHRIS SERIO MARTIN
ELKHART -- During after-school snack time at the Pollock home, Keri Rohr, 10, and Lauren "Lu" Pollock, 7, sat at the kitchen counter eating brownies.
The girls wore identical soft pink hats that shouted the message "Cancer Fears Me."
"I don't go anywhere without my hat," Keri said.
Both girls giggled and tugged off their hats to display their "sprouts," the soft, short hair growing back after months of radiation and chemotherapy.
They are young girls -- eating brownies, talking about crafts, the other friends they have made who also have cancer, and their recent pedicures.
"We got the same things on our nails," Keri said pulling off her socks and proudly displaying toenails painted with pretty flowers.
Lauren, not sitting still for long, jumped off her chair to chase her new puppy, a tiny Yorkie named Libby.
"They're just little kids and they're dealing with this big adult situation," says Keri's mother, Tonya Rohr.
The Pollock and Rohr families were chosen to benefit from this weekend's Cockopalooza, an annual event to support local people battling cancer. Judy and Chris Pollock have three boys -- Nick, Trevor and CJ -- in addition to Lu, the youngest. Tonya and Don Rohr have another daughter, Katie, and a son, Trey.
Saturday's event is to be a celebration of the two brave girls, said Judy Pollock.
"We want our girls to remember their cancer battles as all the amazing things that were done by other people to make them feel better."
A SHARED JOURNEY
"With Keri and Lauren, it's so unique that they have each other," said Judy. "God put us in this place a month before them."
One night late last winter, Judy and Lauren were reading together in bed. Lauren fell asleep while Judy gently scratched her tummy. One side of her abdomen relaxed, Judy recalls. The other side felt hard.
"Never did I think it was a tumor or cancer," she said.
During an exam the following week, "Our regular doctor knew immediately what it was."
On Dec. 5, when Lauren was 6, doctors at Riley Hospital for Children removed one of her kidneys with a tumor and two suspicious lymph nodes. Lauren had Stage 3 Wilms Disease. One month later, on Jan. 5, doctors at Riley removed a walnut-sized malignant tumor near Keri's brain stem.
The night before Keri's surgery, Judy and Lauren drove down to the hospital to be with their friends, the Rohrs. A frightened Keri, age 9 at the time, had asked Lauren, "They said it's not going to hurt. Is it going to hurt?"
Lauren was able to ease Keri's fears by telling her she had no bad memories of her surgery.
The two girls, and their families, were bound together by their fight.
When Lauren started losing her hair from the chemotherapy, she was understandably reluctant to shave her head. Many people in her life -- kids at school, friends and family members -- had shaved their heads as a show of support.
One day, Keri shaved off her hair and sent Lauren a text message with a photo. Keri told her friend she had "felt funny" for just one day, and then it was OK.
Lauren told her mom, "I think I'm ready to shave my head now."
Fighting cancer is a full-time job for parents. Week after week, month after month, days are filled with radiation, chemotherapy, blood work, transfusions and insurance issues. Parents and the doctors carefully monitor cell counts, body weight and schedules. At times, they need the emergency room.
The families often long for home, a place of respite, away from hospitals.
Communicating with friends and family can be challenging. Both families found a solution on the Web. The Pollocks used CarePages; the Rohrs, the Caring Bridge.
Judy and Tonya, women of faith and mothers of strength, write frequent journal entries on these sites, opening a window to their challenges, decisions, setbacks and triumphs. Through the sites, readers can respond by sending notes of encouragement and prayer.
Tonya wrote in one entry: "You have all in some way lifted us up when we've been down and you've helped us stay strong through all of this."
As the medicine was going into Lu's body, the prayers were going out to God, Judy said.
"Early on in this journey, we (she and Chris) both came to a peaceful place that she had been healed."
Both moms said their daughters often asked difficult, heart-tugging questions.
"She questions things I don't have answers for," Judy said. "She just has a child's faith."
Keri's faith has grown as well. In August, of her own accord, this 10-year-old asked if she could be baptized.
Both moms celebrate their daughters' compassion for other kids fighting cancer. The girls enjoy visiting with other children undergoing treatment.
"It's almost like this little clique of people who get each other," Tonya said.
TODAY AND TOMORROW
As for tomorrow, "We don't know," Judy said. Lauren will be watched closely by a Wilms specialty team, working on bringing up an already high cure rate.
"We celebrate every day that we have another day," Judy said.
Lauren is the fourth behind three older, very active brothers. Judy said she looks forward to the day when family life returns to "normal."
"I think I have realized that I really can't protect my kids, except for the common sense things," she said. "They are in God's hands." As for Lauren, "God's got his protective hands around her."
The lives of these women and their families have changed though the long fight. Judy said she wonders if this cancer journey will encourage her children to seek work in fields that will help others.
"Some of these little cancer kids are going to do something special because of the experiences they had."
Tonya recognized that this battle changed her family's priorities.
"This is happening for a reason," she said. They had not been connected and engaged as a family, she realized.
She described her family -- with schedules full of activities -- as "a group of individuals that dwelled in the same place."
"It kind of woke me up," Tonya said. Now, they spend time together and are more connected.
"We're interacting with each other," she said. "We are a family."
Benefit is Saturday
Cockopalooza was started in 2004 by the friends and family of Corey "Cocko" Cox, a leukemia survivor. This year's events will benefit and support Keri Rohr, 10, and Lauren Pollock, 7.
The day's activities include a freedomball tournament, golf scramble, silent auction, live music, bonfire and other activities for kids.
The public is invited to the festivities, which start at 11 a.m., Saturday at Elcona Country Club.
The club is at 56784 C.R. 21, Bristol, just off U.S. 20 east of Elkhart.
The cost is $20 for adults and $10 for kids, which includes food and drinks.
See the event Web site at www.cockopalooza.com for more information and for registration forms and fees for the freedomball tournament and golf scramble.