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Sensitivity helps girls pull through

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SANDY — It's the one thing they'd hoped never to have in common as best friends living two doors apart.

Marleen Cali will never forget the day Carolee Glaittli knocked on her door with the news: "Sofia has leukemia, too."

Sofia Glaittli is 4 years old; Marleen's daughter, Ali, is 15. What are the odds, wonders Carolee, of two girls on the same Sandy street battling leukemia?

"It's shocking, but we try not to dwell on how they could have gotten it," says Marleen, 45, mother to five children. "Our focus has to be on fighting it, one day at a time."

Ali was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago and Sofia has had the disease for more than a year. Already good friends, Marleen and Carolee were drawn closer together by the challenge, and now they have a message for anybody wondering how to help those with cancer.

"So many people are afraid to talk to you," says Carolee, 36, over a Free Lunch of grilled salmon and salad, "but the truth is, you don't have to say anything. I've really appreciated the letters people leave in my mailbox and the hugs."

Not everyone, though, is so sensitive. Carolee, an artist and mother of four, still feels hurt when she recalls the woman who told her in church that Sofia's sickness was meant to teach the girl a lesson.

Then there are those who act as if cancer is contagious. "Ali has missed three years of school, and so many times, she's felt alone," says Marleen, who shaved her own head to show support for her daughter during treatment.

"People are supportive at first, but then they tend to stay away. Maybe it makes them sad and uncomfortable to be around a young person who is so sick. It broke my heart when Ali asked, 'Mom, why don't I have any friends?' "

The good news is that Ali is doing well enough now after a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy treatments to start high school in the fall. "She's hoping someday to be a doctor or nurse and help other kids with cancer," says Marleen. "She was devastated when she learned that little Sofia had leukemia, too."

Carolee had a hunch that something was terribly wrong when she took her daughter to see the pediatrician last year. Sofia, then 3, had been bruising easily and was unusually tired. "When the doctor saw the bruises, his face went pale and I knew," she says. "I knew we'd be getting to know the cancer floor at Primary Children's."

Because of her young age, the prognosis for Sofia looks promising. It hasn't been easy, though, explaining to a preschooler why she has to spend so much time in the hospital and has lost her hair.

Carolee is grateful when people in line at the store simply give her daughter a smile and ask, "What's wrong? Have you been sick?"

"Children are so perceptive — they appreciate honesty," she says. "We can all learn a lot from that."

Several months ago, Carolee took Sofia to lunch for the first time since her treatments began. "This well-dressed businessman came in," she says, "and Sofia asked him, 'Mister, what kind of cancer do you have?' "

The man, perplexed, said, "Oh, sweetheart, I don't have cancer."

"But mister, you're bald," Sofia replied. The customer ignored his ringing cell phone and gently explained to Sofia how his hair had fallen out on its own.

As she and Sofia left the restaurant, Carolee noticed tears in the man's eyes and she knew that his life had been touched by that small exchange with her daughter.

"People like him have helped us get through this," she says, squeezing Marleen's hand. "You can't help but feel hope during moments like that."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.