Last year, the Cutting family of Soldotna had a good reason to celebrate during the holiday season.
Daughter Tara, then a high school senior, had just finished a two-year ordeal with a cancerous brain tumor. Done with radiation treatments and chemotherapy, she looked forward to growing her hair back, regaining strength and starting college.
But fate can be cruel.
Tara is recovering, but now her mother, Carla, is battling cancer herself.
Tara left college to help care for her mother, and they have spent most of the past two months in Anchorage, where Carla is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. They were able to come home and spend Christmas with other family members.
"I'm doing pretty good," Carla said Tuesday.
Back in the spring, the family had a lot planned.
Tara graduated as a valedictorian from Soldotna High School. She enrolled at the State University of New York at Fredonia near Buffalo. It was Carla's alma mater and near family members.
She and her mother drove from Alaska to New York in June to stay with Carla's parents. While in New York, Carla had surgery to remove uterine fibroids.
"She had a surgery that was supposed to work," Tara said. "We didn't know it didn't, at first."
At the end of August, Carla left to drive back to Alaska with Tara's older sister, Carie, and to return to her job as a librarian for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
Tara moved onto campus at Fredonia and began her new life.
"It is not a really big campus. It was pretty nice," she said.
She fielded the traditional goofy questions about igloos and dog sleds, noting she actually had ridden with a musher at the honorary start of the Tustumena 200. She became involved in studying, the biology club and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
"I made a lot of good friends," she said.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity interrupted her first collegiate quarter.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charity that works with severely ill children, had signed Tara up for a trip when she had cancer. The organization arranged an all-expense paid trip for her entire family, plus her best friend to attend the Summer Olympics in Australia.
"We got to see the track-and-field events. I saw American athletes win medals," Tara said. "We got to sing along with 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'"
The only downside of the trip was that Carla was in pain.
"She thought she had pulled a muscle or had a hernia," Tara said.
On the long plane flights back to Alaska, Carla's legs began to swell. Soon after Tara returned to New York, she learned that her mother, whom she had parted with at the Los Angeles airport, was in the hospital with a broken hip.
That was the beginning of October. Tara returned to college but spent a lot of time on the phone with her family following Carla's situation.
The doctors found that Carla's cancer had spread. She had surgery and was scheduled to start chemotherapy.
On a break from school, Tara went to her grandparents' house. Her father, who works in Oklahoma but had flown to Alaska to help, called to report that things were not going well.
Tara went right back to campus and started packing to return to Alaska. The administration was understanding and assured her that her scholarships would be held for her.
"I decided college will still be there when I decide to go back," she said.
Carla began chemotherapy at Providence Alaska Medical Center at the end of October.
The younger woman remains pale and thin from her own illness. However, despite the stress of helping to care for her mother, Tara's strength is returning. Once an athlete, she still cannot run, but she can walk faster and with more endurance, she said.
The turn of events cut short her course of physical therapy in New York, but she is working to regain the muscle strength and control she once had, especially on her right side, which was most affected. She still has to write with her left hand.
"And I still sleep a lot," she said.
Tara and her 23-year-old sister, Carie, are staying with Carla at her Soldotna home for the time being. Their father, Glenn, has taken leave from his job to be with them. They take care of their mother, just as she once took care of Tara. The friends, family and church, which helped the Cuttings through their previous ordeal, are still there for them.
Carla was scheduled to return to Anchorage to begin her fourth round of chemotherapy today.
Even the doctors who work with the family have expressed amazement at the situation, which people compare to being struck twice by lightning.
"I just figure it is what God has planned, I guess," Tara said. "It's not exactly what I would like."
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