Bre'ly's Journey through Childhood Cancer
Photographer Samantha Herrald’s photo essay brings us into her family's experience navigating the healthcare system to find treatment for her daughter’s rare cancer.
Samantha Herrald is a Lakota photographer and mother of five from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. In January of 2018, her five-year-old daughter Bre’ly was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
When Bre’ly first fell ill, they were living in Swiftbird on the Cheyenne River Reservation. In January, she got sick fast. She became lethargic, and then feverish. Samantha took her to the Indian Health Services (IHS) hospital in Eagle Butte, 45 minutes away, only to be sent home with Tylenol and told to visit the clinic on Monday. As Bre’ly’s fever spiked and the Tylenol didn’t bring it down, Samantha knew something was wrong. “She screamed when I touched her. We didn’t know there was cancer in her bones,” Samantha said. They went back to the ER, and after blood tests she was life-flighted off the reservation to Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
After a blood transfusion and weeks of tests and treatments, Bre’ly was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Samantha and Bre’ly came home, but since the Eagle Butte hospital didn’t have the resources to provide the necessary chemotherapy, they made weekly trips off the reservation to Sioux Falls, five hours away. After weeks of these trips, Bre’ly was given a new diagnosis for a rare form of childhood cancer called positive Philadelphia chromosome pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This required a more aggressive chemotherapy, and her treatment plan was redone following this new diagnosis.
They lived in Swiftbird while Samantha kept her job with the Tribe and took Bre’ly for her weekly appointments in Sioux Falls, often staying the night. After seven months of this, Samantha decided they needed to leave the reservation and move closer to the hospital.
When living in Swiftbird, Samantha and her children were eligible for IHS services and help from the tribe. Once they moved to Sioux Falls they were no longer eligible for tribal supportive services, and now go to the Urban Indian Health Center for their healthcare.
These photos represent Samantha’s journey both with Bre’ly’s cancer and the impact it had on her family. Time and memory are not always linear in this series.
Bre’ly is now in her first year of remission.
—Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros, The Lakota Nation and the Legacy of American Colonization editors, in collaboration with Samantha Herrald