Child Dying of Cancer Leaves Notes Behind

Brooke and Keith Desserich of Cincinnati, Ohio, were told their daughter Elena had 135 days to live. She beat her diagnosis by 121 days.

But during that time, as she fought the cruelest form of pediatric brain cancer, 5-year-old Elena left a powerful legacy.

She began to hide little notes -- hidden in book shelves, CD cases, sock drawers -- for her family to find after she was gone.

VIDEO: Young girl hid notes for her family to find
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"The first time I found a note caught between books, I thought nothing of it," said Keith Desserich, 34, and an entrepreneur. "But then I started to find 20 to 30 notes, and wondered if there was something more to it. One -- 'I love you Mom and Dad' -- was packed in a bag of clothes put away for the winter."

Soon, the family got calls from her grandparents, saying they, too, had colorful hand drawings from Elena. One aunt even found a note written to her chihuahua, which little Elena loved.

Now, two years after Elena's death in 2007, the Desseriches have compiled a book, "Notes Left Behind," a collection of their daily journal entries and their daughter's notes.

They hope that by sharing Elena's 256-day struggle, the little girl who loved pink, only wore dresses and wrote her name backwards, will help other families. They say she may even offer hope for a "home-run cure" for her form of cancer and others.

The book was never meant to be a public offering. It was designed to leave another kind of legacy -- to preserve memories for Elena's younger sister Grace, who was 4 at the time of her illness.

"We were told Elena had 135 days to live," said Desserich. "When you are greeted with that kind of diagnosis, your world changes. When we started writing, we focused on the memories, but then we realized there was a higher meaning in what we were going through and it helped crystallize our thoughts."

"We made sure she realized what her sister was like and that she understands how to be a mother herself," said Desserich. "We also started focusing on the things that cheered Elena up."

Brain Cancer Journal Resonated

The journal was first posted on the Desserich family Web site, which was designed primarily to keep family and friends in the loop. But soon, strangers began responding to the entries -- so many, in fact, that the site crashed.

"People started writing letters saying, 'You don't know me, but this changed the way I related to my son or daughter. Please consider writing again.' So the simple letter we started to Grace became much more than that."

Elena inspired her family with her optimism and joy.

When her cancer progressed and she could no longer speak, she turned to drawing and painting -- her kindergarten passions -- to communicate.

She fulfilled a dream when one of her drawings was hung next to one by her favorite painter, Pablo Picasso, at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

It was also her family's message -- to spend precious time with your children -- that resonated with thousands of readers.

"Around the holidays, we went to the mall and saw everyone walking around buying things and completely every last item on their list," said Desserich. "But they are not thinking about the holiday season. We are walking around with Elena and know the true meaning of the holiday."

The couple self-published their journal, selling more than 7,000 copies, and friends encouraged them to use their podium to raise funds for cancer research.

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