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June 16, 2014 12:00 PM

Not long ago Chip Esten was standing on the sidelines of a Nashville soccer field, watching as his 14-year-old daughter Addie accepted an MVP award and found himself weeping tears of joy. “It was a great moment, like, Can you believe it?” says the actor, who plays Deacon Claybourne on ABC’s hit Nashville. “We know what she’s been through, and that makes normal things shine in a different light. You see what blessings we have in life.”

Those blessings are not something Esten, 48, takes for granted. When Addie was 2 years old, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer that affects the body’s white blood cells. The disease, which is generally highly treatable in children, was detected after Esten and his wife, Patty Puskar, 49, brought Addie to the pediatrician for a small rash of red spots. When they heard the news, the pair, who are also parents to daughter Taylor, 18, and son Chase, 16, “wanted to fall apart,” Esten recalls. “But you can’t. You have to wipe your eyes and go back to parenting and breaking up fights over crayons. People ask, ‘How could you handle this?’ But what’s the alternative? It’s your daughter, so you just start walking that hard path.”

Soon, Addie was undergoing weekly spinal taps and a grueling two-year course of chemotherapy. She also participated in several clinical trials, which rendered her unable to walk for six months and forced her into intensive care. Although doctors told the family she had an 85 percent chance of survival, “you realize, 15 is a much bigger number than 85 when it’s about your child’s survival,” Esten says, choking back tears. “I’ve always had faith, and I thought I knew how to pray. But in truth I learned how to pray when I was praying for my daughter’s life.”

All the while, Patty devoted herself to making life as normal as possible for their daughter. “We transformed her hospital room with Dora the Explorer and Disney princesses, and every night after school we brought the kids in and had dinner on a little picnic table,” she recalls. “It was hard, but at least at that age you live in the moment,” adds Esten. “If it’s a good day, it’s a good day. You don’t know you have a spinal tap tomorrow. You don’t know you’ll lose your hair next week.”

When the family finally learned that Addie was in remission, “you take a deep breath and go, ‘Okay,’ but you don’t go throw a party – you never really do,” says Esten. His daughter says she “barely remembers” treatment, but even now she has to have her blood tested once a year. (“She doesn’t even flinch,” her mother boasts. “She just goes in, does it, then says, ‘Okay, let’s go get ice cream.'”) Esten and his family have dedicated themselves to helping other families of sick children, working with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “He and Patty give of themselves so generously,” Chief Mission Officer Dr. Louis J. DeGennaro says of Esten, who raised $500,000 on a charity episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and helped galvanize the music community in Nashville to give back. For Esten the connection is only natural. “My heart breaks for those families that lost their child. We always loved our children – they were everything to us,” he says. “But after all this, you understand the tenuousness of life. We’re so blessed that Addie survived.”

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