BILLINGS – From the view of a Zoom call, all the way from her ranch in Sidney, Tana Hovde holds her daughter Cedar’s hand and takes a moment to collect her thoughts.
“Where do I even start,” said Tana, thinking back to the time Cedar was 18 months old.
A mother's intuition took hold after Tana noticed Cedar always shielding her eyes from the light. She says at one point, when she went to develop some film of her three children, she noticed a yellow shine in Cedar’s eye, where usually a red eye would appear from the lighting of a flash.
“She was extremely light sensitive,” said Tana.
So she did what any mother would do: Seek help from an ophthalmologist who confirmed the issue was eye cancer.
Tana recalled the devastation she felt.
“I am in tears because my baby girl is going to have to go through this,” she said.
For the next six months, Cedar, as well as the family, spent much of their time in Minneapolis, where she was treated for retinoblastoma.
But Tana says that treatment eventually hit its limits.
The family was faced with an immediate decision: Either remove Cedar’s eye and spare her additional rounds of chemotherapy, or destroy the tumor and try to save her eye with the help of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Tana says she felt a sort of calm come over her at that moment, and she knew the decision was to keep fighting.
“So we headed to Memphis,” she said.
The family is rooted in ranching in Eastern Montana. Tana’s husband J.J. is the local veterinarian and she owns her own business. Meanwhile, Cedar is your average teenager, playing basketball, excelling at speech and drama activities, and rodeoing.
“I do an event that not a lot of people hear about called cutting,” said Cedar. “Where you separate one cow from the herd and have to keep it away from the herd.”
Sitting next to her mother in a red St. Jude sweatshirt and glasses, she smiles when she talks about it.
“It's really fun,” she said.
Cedar’s cancer is very rare, and according to research from St. Jude, only 250 to 300 children a year are diagnosed with retinoblastoma in the U.S.
“Of course, she was just a little trooper just sweet and smiling,” said Tana.
But Cedar doesn’t look at the cards dealt to her as anything but an opportunity to shine in a different light.
“Hey, I would have (rocked) a glass eye if I had to,” laughs Cedar. She says, perhaps she would have even gotten some cool designs with it.
But fortunately, that’s not a decision she’ll ever have to be faced with, because the team at St. Jude saved Cedar’s eye.
“They placed a very small radioactive bead in her eye and left it there for four days."
Cedar doesn’t have any central vision in her eye, and her limited peripheral vision is often double or blurry.
“You were a trooper about it you didn’t like it though, you had a big bandage on,” Tana says to her daughter.
“Hey, I got to wear an eyepatch and that was pretty cool,” said Cedar.
Tana recalls how Cedar hated going under anesthesia, carrying her to the table and laying her down, kissing her and trying to calm her, and all the while, reminding her toddler that she would be there when Cedar woke up.
Cedar says she remembers asking the doctors to give her strawberry flavor as she went to sleep.
But through all those tough moments, Tana says there were positive ones too. She says they never took pictures of Cedar in the hospital bed or during treatment to seal only the good memories from their time at St. Jude.
Cedar particularly loved going to the zoo.
As she takes a mental jog looking back at all of it, Tana squeezes her daughter’s hand, and talks about the lasting relationships they made in Memphis.
“She had just turned two, the first time we had gone to Memphis and now she’s 16,” said Tana. “So we made a few trips and I tell you what - we might be eastern Montana, western North Dakota girls, but there’s a little bit of southern belle in us now, isn’t there sweetie?”
Cedar smiles back at her mom and agrees.
“Yes,” she said.