Written by: Deborah Pecis
You might not recognize 15-year-old Grace McKay if she were to stand next to a photograph of her 10-year-old self. While today Grace is an energetic and busy teen, involved in her high school’s drama club and color guard, when she was 10, she was in the throes of treatment for cancer, often frightened, and bald from chemotherapy.
Grace was not yet 8 years old when she was diagnosed back in 2014 with T-Cell Lymphoma. She had just started a new school, something challenging in and of itself for a young girl. But instead of enjoying pre-teen life, Grace began an intensive chemotherapy treatment, full of overwhelming procedures like routine blood work, finger pokes, and hospitalizations. Her mom Aletha, reflecting on that time, remembers how her once social daughter “had become withdrawn, and did not really interact with other kids.”
This all changed one November day when Sensei Michael Hunt came and visited Grace in the hospital. Michael invited Grace and her family to participate in the Heroes Circle, which included learning basic martial arts skills. Grace didn’t initially understand why she was even being offered karate classes; she had done traditional karate prior to her diagnosis, but had to stop because of treatment. Sensei Michael explained how the Heroes Circle program was different. The unique therapeutic program was meditation-based, and they specialized in teaching children how to use Power Breathing as a method to manage anxiety and pain resulting from treatment. Also, the karate would be safe and non-contact in nature. Michael shared that he was a childhood cancer survivor himself, and one of the earliest students in the Heroes Circle program.
Aletha was eager to get Grace and her oldest daughter, Danielle, involved. Cancer had disrupted the family’s life, and Aletha wanted to give her daughters both some sense of normalcy, as well as some involvement with other kids their age. Danielle enjoyed the program immediately, but Grace was overwhelmed at first. “She cried and sat in my lap,” says Aletha. But that started to change as Grace became involved in other social aspects of the Heroes Circle, such as movie nights. She began meeting other kids, her age or a bit older, dealing with health difficulties similar to her. Suddenly, Aletha saw her daughter begin to emerge from her shell and look forward to meeting with new friends at class. “The biggest benefit of the Heroes Circle is the open and welcoming atmosphere,” says Aletha.
The meditative breathing technique, known as Power Breathing, really began to play a positive role in Grace’s treatments as well. Prior to learning Power Breathing, Grace would “melt down” going into treatments. “Power Breathing helped Grace calm herself prior to blood draws and other painful procedures,” Aletha notes. Grace adds that even today, several years post treatment, she will use Power Breathing whenever she is stressed out. Even Grace’s parents use it, joking how they initially encouraged Grace, but were often stressed out themselves as their daughter went through treatments.
Aletha says the Heroes Circle “has become an extension of family,” and believes parents became part of this family as well as children, sharing treatment stories as the kids participated in lessons. Since Grace’s treatment finished in February of 2017—capped off by a celebratory bell-ringing ceremony at Detroit’s Children’s Hospital—the McKay’s have continued their participation in the Heroes Circle. They have enjoyed participation in fun family events, ranging from Greenfield Village visits to Detroit Lions demonstrations.
For Grace, the Heroes Circle provides something she can rely on in a world where “a lot of stuff changes.” Today, the McKay’s involvement with the Heroes Circle is more about giving back to a program that gave them so much. There’s a photograph of Grace from when she was ten, bald from chemotherapy, hanging up on the wall of one of the karate classrooms. When new students meet Grace, they don’t realize that she’s the same person as the girl in the photo. For those students, trying out the program for the first time, Grace is an inspiration, an example of something to look forward to, living proof that there can be light at the end of an often times dark journey. Says Aletha, “Grace is definitely a hero.”