May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Date night” is not a term often used in the Dotson household; however, “family” is. After 11 years of marriage, David and Susie Dotson have experienced more than any parents should, but they still find time to come together as a family and cherish the moments they have. “Our marriage has shaped us to be better parents,” Susie explains.

“Strength” is another word thrown around a lot when discussing the Dotsons. Their first child, Noah, was born with autism. “He suffered from anxiety [when he heard] any loud noise growing up. He didn’t develop his speech to explain his fears and anxiety until around age 4.” Susie became focused on trying to help Noah by going to autism events, getting involved in discussion groups, and doing her own research. The Millard Public Schools district was able to get Noah started with homebound help at age 2, and eventually into Halo, a gifted learning program at Wheeler Elementary School, where he continues to build his communication skills.

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A couple years after Noah’s birth, Lily was born five weeks early and had to stay in the NICU for two weeks. She went home on a heart monitor and eventually grew into a healthy baby girl. Five years later, however, Lily was suddenly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer common in childhood and characterized by the overproduction of immature white blood cells in the bone marrow.

Susie remembers the day they found out. “I felt all summer long that something wasn’t right with her. I had mother’s intuition.” After complaining of stomach aches and her legs hurting when she played sports, Susie took Lily out of gymnastics, soccer, and swimming. She thought the schedule may have been too daunting for her little girl. “After a couple of weeks into school, I noticed bruising,” she says, “After about two weeks of the bruising getting worse and showing up in places that you normally don’t bruise, I made an appointment.”

“I feel like we are still figuring it all out. There are days that are not pretty. One of my favorite quotes for my family is, ‘We may not have it all together, but together, we have it all.’” – Susie Dotson

The night before Lily’s doctor’s appointment, Susie decided to google her daughter’s symptoms. Every result came back the same: cancer. Susie’s heart sank. “I took a photo of her eating breakfast before school that morning, knowing that this is what a normal day looked like before cancer.” Later that day, after five minutes of examining Lily, their pediatrician told Susie that her daughter had cancer and needed to go to the emergency room immediately. “Within 24 hours, she started blood transfusions, chemo, spinal tap, and a bone marrow scan. She has had over a dozen platelet and whole blood transfusions. She was put on high risk and only a 40 percent chance of making it the first year. She is now up to 65-70 percent.”

Lily’s fight not only took a toll on her but also on the Dotson’s marriage and Susie’s relationship with Noah. “Communication is key, and we are slowly finding that. During the heavy treatment, it was very hard to have a meaningful relationship [with David or Noah] with the high demands of Lily’s cancer treatment. But we are now learning how to heal as a married couple. I’m also loving my ‘Noah time.’ I feel like I missed a whole year of his life. I missed him.”

Lily’s treatment doesn’t end until January 2014, but the heavy treatment portion concluded last July. Lily can now do daily chemo treatments at home and go to school.20130407_bs_0015 Medium Copy

While life is far less stressful than it was a year ago, Susie says, “No matter what day it is, cancer doesn’t let you forget you’re fighting it. Once your family is hit by cancer, you are constantly in the battle…You never get to leave the battlefield.” The Dotsons still find time to be a normal family, with Lily dressing up the family Maltese, Santana, and Noah writing letters to the family beta fish: Patrick, Sandy, Rainbow Buddy, and Red Nose Clown Nose. And maybe soon, Susie and David will finally get that date night.

“I feel like we are still figuring it all out. There are days that are not pretty. One of my favorite quotes for my family is, ‘We may not have it all together, but together, we have it all.’”