Sole mates

Thanks to the research and treatment at St. Jude, this 16-year-old is living her dream as an award-winning clogger.

They met for the first time when Hillary Husband was a toddler. She watched with rapt attention the heels that pounded the stage and was wooed by the sweet sound of jingle taps. Hillary didn’t know the teens who were jigging in those clogging shoes. But by the end of the rousing performance, she was certain she had met her sole mate.

Now an intrepid 16-year-old with feet like lightning, Hillary is living her dream as a member of a national championship clogging troupe in Louisiana.

“Dance is my life,” Hillary says.

Her repertoire includes tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical and dance line. But clogging, a hybrid of tap and Irish step dancing, is what gets her adrenaline pumping.

“I like it because I can do something not everybody can do, and I love the competition,” she says. “I also like the teamwork and bonding with my friends on the team.”

Slow tempo

In spring of 2008, after acing the first leg of school with a 4.0 grade point average and logging up to 14 hours a week at dance practice, Hillary spent spring break playing video games and engaging in girl talk during sleepovers.

The late nights were taxing, and she found herself nursing headaches and fatigue for most of her vacation. Afterward, she noticed a purple rash that stretched from her thigh to her toes. She dismissed it. The next day at school, she became dizzy. Climbing the stairs to class was like ascending Mount Everest. Somehow she made it halfway through dance line tryouts after school.

“I tried to practice, but my body wouldn’t do what I told it to. The room started spinning, and I got really nauseated,” Hillary says. Then she did something she had never done before.

“She sent me a text message to come pick her up. That raised a red flag,” says her father. “For her to leave dance practice meant that she was really feeling bad.”

Stiff competition

From dance tryouts to home and from home to the emergency room—everything happened quickly and unexpectedly. Michael and Katey Husband thought the flu or spinal meningitis was attacking their daughter’s immune system, but lab work ruled out those diseases. Hillary was quickly transported to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital affiliate clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana, for further testing.

The wait was interminable.

“The doctor called my parents out of the room. I know when that happens on TV at the doctor’s office, that’s not good,” Hillary says.

Hillary was found to have precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a subtype of ALL involving blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. 

“I was overwhelmed with pain—I hurt so much it was hard to stand,” Katey recalls. “I remember being very angry—not so much as ‘why me?’ But I was waiting for somebody to come into the room and say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Husband, we were mistaken.’”

It never happened.

“We knew we would get bad news; we just didn’t know how bad. It was devastating,” Michael says. “Cancer was always for somebody else. You felt for them; you prayed for them. But it’s something that didn’t happen to your family.”

As for Hillary—sure, she cried for hours. All she could think about was whether she would dance again. She even wrestled with the thought of going bald from the chemotherapy. But everything made sense to her in retrospect. The headaches, the rash, the fatigue, the abdominal weight gain were the onset of leukemia.

“That’s why my stomach was getting bigger; it wasn’t weight gain. It was my spleen shaking hands with my belly button,” she says.

Hillary’s quick wit shines through in the most difficult of circumstances, which is why her friends were wary when she broke the news.

“It’s really hard to tell your friends that you have cancer on April Fool’s Day. They thought it was a joke. I argued with them for a week,” she says.

Hillary quickly prepared for a heel-toe battle with cancer. The affiliate arranged a flight to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, so that she could begin treatment right way.

A footprint in research

St. Jude has a storied success rate in leukemia research and treatment. When the hospital opened in 1962, the survival rate for children with leukemia was a grim 4 percent; today it’s 94 percent.

“Our goal is 100 percent,” says Deepa Bhojwani, MD, of St. Jude Oncology. Bhojwani is involved in the Total XVI clinical study to improve the cure rate in children with precursor B-cell and T-cell ALL. A critical piece is minimal residual disease (MRD) monitoring.

“MRD is a very sensitive and sophisticated way of making sure leukemic cells are not hiding in the bone marrow,” Bhojwani says. “We’re able to identify one leukemic cell out of 10,000 normal cells using a technique called flow cytometry.”

Hillary and other St. Jude patients with leukemia get their MRD results within a couple of days without delays in their treatments because of the hospital’s onsite, state-of-the-art flow cytometry lab and pioneering research in MRD testing techniques. This convenience allows clinicians to closely monitor the response to treatment with greater frequency than most institutions.

“If we find that the MRD is not going down as fast as we’d like it to, then we can adjust their chemotherapy sooner to prevent them from relapsing,” Bhojwani says.

Tapping inner strength

The first six weeks of Hillary’s treatment were intense in order to decrease the number of leukemic cells in her bone marrow. Then she underwent two re-induction phases that lasted several weeks.

Hillary chronicled her experience in an online journal. Some entries were serious. Others offered a glimpse into her incisive sense of humor. For instance, one entry described the drug dexamethasone, which causes fatigue and mood swings.

“It’s a combination of steroids and teenage hormones. I always joke that dex is like PMS in pill form,” she wrote.

Today, Hillary receives maintenance chemotherapy at the St. Jude affiliate and returns to Memphis each month for follow-up procedures. Looking back, she says her experience with cancer has brought her family closer. Her ability to continue clogging and the prayers of family, friends and well-wishers motivated her to face treatment with great expectations. Losing her hair wasn’t all that bad, either.

“It’s kind of cool because now it’s curlier and thicker, and it came back a different color than my old hair. It’s like I got free hair dye and highlights,” Hillary says.

Her parents continue to be inspired by their daughter’s resilience and her ability to find a silver lining in any situation.

“She always has a good attitude. She’s an inspiration to us as her parents and to everyone she encounters,” Michael says.

“Hillary is the most driven person I know. A lot of cancers and tumors are bigger than attitude, but even when your quality of life is low it’s made better by a positive attitude,” Katey says.

“I don’t think our attitude would be as hopeful without St. Jude. I thank God that Danny Thomas was placed on this earth and was given the gifts and the talents to create such a wonderful place.”

Reprinted from Promise Summer 2009

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