A mom and supporters shave their heads for a second-grader with cancer
An energetic 7-year-old diagnosed with a rare terminal brain-stem tumor will travel to Washington, D.C., for an experimental therapy. Her family conducted a “Brave the Shave” event to bolster the girl's spirits.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Viera Elementary second-grader Vivian Sleeth’s mother and stepfather noticed that when she watched television, she was looking sideways.
“When we asked her, she said she was seeing double,” recalled her mother, Brittany Sleeth, who works as a special education teacher at Palm Bay Magnet High.
Afterward, a simple June trip to the pediatrician to get Viv’s eyes checked spiraled into a shocking, unanticipated series of medical tests and examinations, including a brain MRI.
Viv — an energetic 7-year-old who loves dinosaurs — was diagnosed with DIPG, a rare terminal pediatric brain-stem tumor. Doctors only gave her six to nine months to live, Brittany said.
“What do you do when they say your child has a non-curable cancer?” she asked, fighting to maintain her composure.
This week, Viv and her family will travel to Washington, D.C., so she can undergo experimental sonodynamic therapy. Viv had to shave her head to receive this trial ultrasound procedure — the thought of which made her “very nervous,” Brittany said.
So her family conducted a “Brave the Shave” event to bolster Viv’s spirits Sunday afternoon in the driveway of their Rockledge home.
Standing atop a pink stepstool, carefully wielding electric clippers, Viv helped shave the heads of more than a dozen of her supporters, including relatives and fellow children.
Then for the grand finale, Viv sat in the chair wearing a blue salon cape while attendees took turns snipping off her blonde shoulder-length hair. Adults bowed their heads and recited the Lord’s Prayer beforehand, and some wept among the crowd of about 40 well-wishers.
But Viv calmly sat with her hands folded in her lap, chewing gum and chatting with her crying mother. Her grandmother, Vicki Morton, started shaving her head with the clippers as Sia’s “Unstoppable” played from speakers.
Then after her shave, Viv ran her hands across her fuzzy bald head, threw on a blue ballcap decorated with embroidered dinosaurs, and shared hugs with her little friends.
“She’s amazing. She’s a fighter. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s just got such a positive spirit about her,” Viera Elementary Principal Adrienne Schwab said, standing near the head-shaving station.
“And she’s just a little spark of energy and light, in everything she does,” Schwab said.
Only about 300 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) each year, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute reports. DIPG is a highly aggressive, difficult-to-treat brain-stem tumor that is typically diagnosed in children ages 5 to 9.
The survival rate for DIPG is very low, and there is no cure, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital reports. Surgery is rarely an option, and treatments include radiation and experimental chemotherapy.
“I just want the world to know about DIPG. They deserve a cure,” Brittany told the crowd, crying and stroking Viv’s hair before her head was shaved.
“My daughter deserves a chance,” Brittany said.
A GoFundMe page has generated more than $42,000 for the Sleeth family, and the Facebook page “Team Viv” has chronicled her activities since her cancer diagnosis.
A contingent of Rockledge police officers and firefighters attended Sunday’s event, as did Titusville Police Chief John Lau. Last month, he swore in Viv as a Titusville junior police officer during an on-field ceremony at the Palm Bay High-Titusville High football game.
Before losing her hair Sunday, Viv petted the furry snout of the Titusville Police Department’s new K9, a 4-month-old Belgian Malinois-Dutch shepherd mix, in her front yard.
“He’ll be in basic obedience training for the next few months, and then he’ll start his 740 hours of K9 training with his new handler,” Titusville police spokesperson Amy Matthews said.
“We have asked Vivian to name the new puppy,” Matthews said.
Thus far, Viv’s top K9 name choices appear to be Copper and Rex — short for Tyrannosaurus Rex, Matthews said. Titusville police will make a formal announcement in a month or two.
Despite her grim prognosis, Viv continues acting peppy and healthy after undergoing radiation treatment from June through September at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.
On Oct. 22, days before Viv underwent a battery of medical tests in Washington, D.C., the family visited Niagara Falls. They met a Canadian family while hiking a nature trail outside Buffalo, New York.
“They’re like, ‘What brought you here?’ So I said, ‘Well, my daughter’s pretty sick.’ And Viv’s like, ‘Mommy, I’m not sick — I just have brain cancer!’ And she just runs around,” Brittany recalled.
“So everyone’s, like, dumbfounded,” she said.
Brittany followed suit Sunday and had her head shaved after Viv, losing her two long braids in the process. Afterward, she tearfully asked attendees to pray for her daughter’s health.
“I just wanted to do a sincere thanks. Because I am struggling. Truly struggling. And I’m not as strong as you guys think I am. I’m not,” Brittany told the crowd.
“I thank you guys so much for being here. And just, continue to pray. That’s all I ask, is just continue to pray. Because that’s what we need,” she said.
“We’re hoping on science.”