FIVE-YEAR-OLD DOROTHY MORAN is flying above the couch cushions in her comfortable Alexandria, Va., home. "Kick, kick, kick!" she cries with a giggle as she bounces up and down in her karate outfit. Then she turns her attention to her 7-year-old brother, Patrick. "Want me to make you a necklace?" she asks, and the pair race off to fashion a string of orange plastic beads.
"Amazing, isn't she?" says Mary Moran, 41, watching her daughter spin through the room. "She wants to live so desperately. Now every day is a gift."
To watch her, you would never know that this effervescent bundle of energy has survived a two-year battle with brain cancer (see PEOPLE, Oct. 31, 1994), diagnosed just as her father, Virginia Rep. James P. Moran Jr., 51, was preparing for his 1994 campaign. You would never know that two years ago, after a tumor was partially removed, she was unable to walk, her hair fell out and her parents feared she was going deaf from the chemotherapy. "I got really skinny," says Dorothy, whose weight dropped from 35 to 25 pounds. "I weigh big now. I've got hair now too. I'm better."
In fact, her recovery is nothing short of remarkable. The latest magnetic resonance imagings show no trace of cancer, and doctors at Children's National Medical Center in Washington say there is a 50 percent chance that Dorothy is cured. At last, the Morans are allowing themselves to feel optimistic after an exhausting two-year journey through treatments both conventional and unconventional, moments of hope and despair.
In April 1995, after she had undergone surgery and chemotherapy, Dorothy's doctor wanted her to begin radiation. It was then that Mary Moran, desperately fearful of possible brain and nerve damage from the radiation—and undeterred by doctors' objections, turned to alternative medicine. "I just felt," says Mary, "like the doctors' attitude was, 'Damn it, we're going to get rid of that tumor—it's a shame she's going to lose her hearing and mental faculties.' I thought, 'There have to be other alternatives.' "
Mary tried vitamin supplements, acupuncture, biofeedback; she even resumed breast-feeding, on the theory that mother's milk might help build Dorothy's natural immunities. At first, Jim Moran was skeptical, to say the least. "I was worried," he says. "Now I look back on it and see that Mary worked at building up Dorothy's immune system. She's strong and healthy."
The family's ordeal began early in July 1994, when Dorothy, inexplicably, began throwing up every day. For six weeks the Morans went to doctor after doctor, each of whom diagnosed lingering flu. But as Dorothy grew weaker, Mary's doubts remained. And she was troubled by a terrifying dream she had had that suggested something was radically wrong with Dorothy. "I dreamt that she had fallen off this balcony," says Mary. "I raced down and picked her up, and her head shattered like porcelain."
On Aug. 13 her anxious intuition was confirmed: A tumor showed up on a CAT scan that Mary had insisted be taken. Surgery was performed the next day. But already disenchanted with mainstream medicine, Mary started smuggling bottles of vitamin C to Dorothy's bedside as she lay recovering in the hospital. By the time Dorothy returned home, Mary was feeding her 65 vitamins and supplement pills a day. "I was strongly into alternatives," she says. "Vitamins, herbal tea, even shark cartilage tablets. Some patients claim they heal cancer because sharks rarely get the disease. Jim thought I was gambling, and the doctors were totally against it. I had a lot of struggles with them."
Mary also went toe-to-toe with the medics over their recommendation in April 1995 to begin radiation. She bargained for a year's delay "to build up Dorothy's immune system," promising them that she would rush Dorothy to the hospital if she took a turn for the worse but secretly hoping that her daughter could forgo radiation entirely. In July 1995 she took Dorothy back for an MRI. "It was perfect," says Mary. "I felt so cocky. Like, 'This is working. Why isn't everyone trying it?' "
Her euphoria, however, was shortlived. Returning to Children's hospital in October 1995, the Morans were stunned to hear that the tumor had reappeared. "It was awful, just awful," says Mary. "For the first time I lost that sense of being able to control this." This time, the Morans agreed to return to mainstream medicine. Over the next six weeks, Dorothy was treated with radiation (which, doctors say, may slow her spinal growth). A November MRI showed that the tumor had vanished. It has not reappeared.
The long ordeal put a strain on the Morans, who were each married once before and have three grown children between them. "Jim was Mr. Negative," says Mary of his inclination to look on the dark side. "That's his way of coping, while I want to be positive." The Morans started arguing, mostly over little things, like whether Dorothy should be given the candy Jim would bring home for her. But the disagreements could still get intense. "I don't know if our marriage would have lasted had this thing continued," says Mary.
For his part, Jim says only, "Sure, it's hard on the family. But I've gained deep respect for Mary. She was not going to let her daughter die, no matter what."
Yet Mary, for all her determination, continued to be fearful. "I remember getting this little children's book with the Lord's Prayer inside. It was beautifully illustrated," she says, breaking into tears. "I thought I needed to make Dorothy understand that if the worst happens, this is where she goes."
The Morans remain wary—realizing that their dreams for their daughter could be dashed by a single MRI showing the cancer has reappeared—as they try to give Dorothy as full and normal a life as possible. Recently, Mary took her children to nearby Oxon Hill Farm, where they saw cows and horses. Patrick said, "I want to be a naturalist when I grow up." And without losing a beat, Dorothy answered, "I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up."
"There is that sense that she will grow up to be a veterinarian," says Mary. "And there is a sense of the unknown. We'll never know until she gets there whether she made it or not. But I'm not going to stop fighting. We're going to try everything. This is our life."
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Alexandria
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine