STAFFORD, Va. (ABC7) — Iliana Bellard is a bouncy, energetic 10-year-old with an infectious smile.
She’s also a cancer survivor.
“She was stage four when she was diagnosed,” recalls Iliana’s mother Elizabeth. “They actually put her on palliative care, ‘cause they didn’t have much hope at the time.”
That was in January 2017, when doctors discovered the Quantico youngster was infected with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the lymph nodes.
The prognosis was not good.
“It started in her shoulder and eventually covered up all her heart,” Mrs. Bellard says. “She then had nine tumors throughout her body.”
Nearly two years later, mother and daughter had reason to celebrate.
After months of chemotherapy at the University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill, Iliana’s medical scans were coming up clear.
Her cancer was in remission.
Family photos from the time show how Iliana’s hair had fallen out.
But her smile shined in almost every picture.
“They call her the miracle child because they weren’t expecting what happened,” Bellard smiles. “So she’s definitely a fighter.”
This past Friday, Iliana and her mom went to the Imperial Salon and Day Spa in Stafford for a celebratory girl’s night out, including, of course, a manicure.
But then, the visit turned sour, when staffers began mocking the girl’s appearance.
“They called me a boy,” Iliana says. “I was embarrassed a little bit.”
The Bellards say a nail technician made fun of the 10-year-old’s nails, brittle from the chemo, and her short hair, saying over and over how she looked like a boy.
“She says it looks like a boy is getting her nails done, everybody’s going to think it’s a boy getting his nails done,” Bellard says. “And they started laughing. And she says I just can’t get over that she looks like a boy, and they just kept laughing about it.”
She explained to a manager that her daughter had just finished chemotherapy, and that this was her first outing in public.
The manager offered to draw something on Iliana’s nails for free; Mrs. Bellard also spoke to a receptionist, who apologized.
But after the girl’s aunt posted a write-up about the encounter on social media, users began scolding the spa on its Facebook page and in Yelp reviews.
The criticism continued on Twitter: “You should be ashamed allowing your staff for bring(ing) down a girl who has been through so much! Short hair, long hair, they are all beautiful!” one post read.
The salon responded with an online apology.
A statement saying in part: “We do not now, or ever support any of our employees making comments to any of our amazing clients. We value each and every one who walks into our spa. We deeply apologize that this has happened.”
Among those most incensed after reading some of the posts was Brandy, a longtime customer who walked in and confronted the owner about what happened.
“Do I condone what she did? By no means. I myself had ovarian cancer,” she says.
A cancer survivor herself, Brandy, who asked that her last name be kept confidential, agreed to take over new management duties at the spa.
Then ,she had a serious sit-down with the nail tech.
“When she told me, she kind of laughed, and that’s what set me off,” Brandy says. “It’s not a laughing matter. It’s not funny. If you were told by the parents she’s a little girl, that’s it, it should have stopped right there, you should have apologized (and) walked away.”
Brandy says she has fired one employee and has suspended two others.
She’s also ordered sensitivity training for every employee, including the owners.
“Certain types of people don’t take into consideration what some of these kids have gone through,” says Eric Bellard, Iliana’s father. “The stress never goes away. The fear never goes away.”
The Bellards say their daughter is resilient and will recover from this.
But they hope this is a teachable moment for everyone about young children and cancer.
“It’s not okay whether it was a child with cancer or without cancer,” Elizabeth Bellard says. “Just bullying, it’s not okay.”
Brandy says she wants everyone to know she is completely sorry, and vows to make sure this never happens again.
“To me, a child is innocent, and as soon as you make a comment that sticks in their head forever, you just made them un-innocent,” Brandy says. “By all means, if I get the chance to meet them and to apologize and to fix things, she will know that she is gorgeous when she walks out that door.”
She hopes the Bellards will return for a free visit, and hopes to offer a face-to-face apology.
Family members say they’re still trying to process all of this, and haven’t decided whether to go back.
Iliana says for her part, she is trying to stay strong.
“What advice would you give to somebody who was in that situation?” she was asked.
“If anyone called you a boy, no matter what, you’re pretty,” she answered quietly.