It all began with a fist bump. And for now, it has ended with one, too.
Nearly 10 months to the day that 4-year-old Leah Still was diagnosed with a rare pediatric cancer that gave her a 50-50 chance of surviving, doctors informed her and her father, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, that she is officially in remission.
Several months after posting a video to his Instagram account that went viral showing he and Leah fist-bumping the camera ahead of one of her surgeries, Still added a photo to the social media site Wednesday that prominently featured Leah punching back toward the camera once again. This time, the photo had a caption that Still had been waiting 296 days to post.
"June 2, 2014 and March 25, 2015 are days I will remember for the rest of my life," Still wrote. "As everyone probably knows, June 2 was the day doctors walked into the waiting room to tell me my daughter had cancer. It was the most devastating day of my life. March 25th, however, is feeling like the best day of my life.
"Today we received news from Leah's oncologist that her cancer, Stage 4 neuroblastoma, is officially in remission!"
Wednesday's news came on the heels of a week filled with a couple of other positive nuggets for the Stills. Last Tuesday, doctors informed them that tests revealed there was no active trace of the cancer within Leah's body. It was optimistic news, and a step toward this latest announcement.
Two days after that, Still decided to sign a one-year offer the Bengals had extended earlier this month. Previously a restricted free agent, Still became an unrestricted free agent just entering the new league year when the Bengals declined to tender him at the low-round free-agent level. It gave him a chance to mull over his future while taking into account Leah's health, and it also permitted him an opportunity to field offers from other teams.
Last Thursday, Still re-signed. Healthy for the first time in more than a year, he said he hopes to repay the Bengals' generosity from the past year with a strong season. This time last year, he was just getting over an elbow injury and was starting to recover from back surgery. Just when he was getting over those injuries last spring, he found out about Leah's cancer.
"You have to really take your hat off to him where at his young age, he's been able to deal with it the way he's had to deal with it," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of the 25-year-old at the NFL owners meetings Tuesday. "You see that smile on his face again. When we drafted Devon, I had such a great vision for him for the future. It'd be great to get him back to that level and to see that smile on his face and to get him back to that level."
The former second-round pick returns this year to a defensive line that also re-signed defensive end Michael Johnson earlier this month.
"Funny thing is, there is really no way of describing [this feeling] because I never knew this feeling existed," Still said in his announcement about Leah's remission. "When I look at my daughter all I can do is smile and hug her. It was not easy but every day, and every treatment Leah fought like hell and kicked cancers butt! I'm so proud and blessed to call her my daughter. She has made an impact on me and on the world, at the age of four, that I can only wish to make in a lifetime."
The Bengals were among Still's closest allies throughout Leah's journey. Her journey became one of sports' feel-good stories last year when the Bengals added Still to their practice squad in September, days after cutting him to reach the 53-man post-training camp roster limit. By keeping Still on the practice squad, the team allowed him to retain his full medical coverage. Still was told at the time Leah's medical bills could reach $1 million.
While posting 19 tackles through 12 games for them, Still used the Bengals to help spread awareness about pediatric cancers. Last November, during a nationally televised game against Cleveland, the Bengals donated $1.25 million to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center as part of fundraising efforts to advance research into pediatric cancers. The funds were collected through sales of Still's black, No. 75 Bengals jersey.
Leah was in attendance at Paul Brown Stadium that night, and has been active in the push for awareness and funds involving the issue. She has appeared in an inspirational music video that featured children with cancers, and she has partnered with her father to write a children's book for families dealing with kids who have similarly serious diseases. Last month, she participated in New York's Fashion Week, too.
Still closed out his statement adding, "Leah is not done with treatments yet.
"She still needs more to make sure the cancer cells do not return and to build back up her immune system and other damage from the [chemotherapy] but I know my little warrior will get through it!"