Before Ansley got sick, she danced ballet and tap. And she loved singing along with her favorite music. “She used to go in her room and put her CDs on, and she would stay in there all day with her music,” said her mom, Cassie.
Then, in the spring of 2014, Ansley abruptly started having trouble breathing, and her voice took on a congested tone. Visits to the pediatrician, a specialist and even the emergency room found nothing conclusive. Her blood tests were normal.
But there was a large tumor—a type called rhabdomyosarcoma— behind Ansley’s nose. It was blocking her nasal passage and growing into her throat. The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital affiliate clinic near Ansley’s home discovered the tumor and immediately referred her to Memphis.
In the beginning, she was really traumatized, and Amy, the St. Jude Music Therapist, was the only person she would have anything to do with.
On arriving, Ansley’s condition was so serious she was in intensive care for over a week, and remained hospitalized for a month more. She required an emergency tracheotomy, a feeding tube and a central line for chemotherapy.
“In the beginning, she was really traumatized,” said Cassie. “And Amy, the St. Jude Music Therapist, was the only person she would have anything to do with.”
Right after the tracheotomy, when Ansley couldn’t talk at all, Amy came and sang to her, played games with her, let her bang the drums. “It’s not just about music with Amy,” said J.R., Ansley’s dad. “It’s about being a friend.”
During one visit, Amy brought a guitar and some little bells. She sang one of Ansley’s favorite songs and convinced the little girl to ring the bells at certain points in the music. That was the first real interaction Ansley’s parents had seen out of their daughter since her surgeries, and they wept. “It was the first sign of a turnaround,” remembered J.R. “It was a light.”
Amy was “a friend in need” to Ansley, said J.R.
And Ansley was a little girl who needed such a friend.
In November, not long after completing proton therapy, Ansley fell desperately ill again. Cancer cells had entered her spinal fluid. Soon, instead of hardly seeming sick, she couldn’t get around without a wheelchair. “It changed everything,” said J.R.
Lacking a treatment protocol for this development, St. Jude staff worked together to craft a treatment plan specific to Ansley. At St. Jude, doctors, researchers and patients are all under one roof, facilitating the kind of collaboration that guided Ansley’s care. In addition to receiving a combination of chemotherapies, Ansley worked with a St. Jude physical therapist to regain strength and mobility. Things seemed to be improving for a time. But then Ansley’s condition took a turn for the worse, and this friendly, kind-hearted, talkative little girl, who loved music and dancing and pandas, passed away.
Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since it opened over 50 years ago. But 80 percent isn’t enough, because even one child dying from cancer is too many. St. Jude won’t stop until no child dies from cancer.