The first time Stella ran in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon®, she and her grandmother, Becki, joyfully tackled the one-mile St. Jude Kids Marathon.
Stella was 6 and Becki (Bella to her grandkids) was “ecstatic” that her oldest grandchild was running with her. “I just asked her. I thought it would be a great thing to do,” Becki said.
She explained to Stella that the race raised money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I told her about why we ran for St. Jude, that it took care of so many families and saved so many lives because of the work and research they do there,” Becki said. “And it’s the right thing to do.”
Stella was pumped by the energy and the excitement she felt the first time she ran on the hospital campus. Patients and their families were cheering and encouraging the runners, even while they themselves were undergoing treatment.
“It’s so cool running through it. It’s sad that people have to be there during holidays and have to stay overnight there, but it’s also kind of cool seeing kids and giving kids high-fives,” Stella said.
Two years later, Stella went from St. Jude supporter to St. Jude patient.
A 'weird spot'
Neither Scarlett nor Stella’s dad, Chris, had noticed the “weird” spot on Stella’s upper thigh. Stella asked her mom about it one night after her bath.
The spot, an indentation about the size of a quarter, wasn’t discolored or bruised. Still, it was worrisome enough to warrant a trip to the doctor.
Their pediatrician sent them to a pediatric surgeon, who recommended an out-patient procedure to remove it, Scarlett said. It turned out to be a noncancerous tumor.
But in an examination ahead of the surgery, the anesthesiologist found a lump in Stella’s neck that was about the size of a golf ball, Scarlett said.
“She asked me how long she’d had it. I felt like the worse mom ever,” Scarlett said.
Stella, then 8 years old, was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma, a cancer of the thyroid gland. She was referred to St. Jude. And that’s when Becki, already a longtime supporter, got a new designation as well, as a St. Jude grandparent.
“When Scarlett called, our worlds just crashed, hearing the news,” Becki said, recalling that telephone call from her daughter.
Becki had run the half marathon since 2010 and supported local St. Jude fundraising efforts in her community in Mississippi. But now it was personal.
After Stella’s diagnosis, continuing that support “was a no-brainer,” Becki said.
“We’ve had several families in our area where I live who have had children at St. Jude. I’ve always known of St. Jude,” she said. “But it hit home, and I had to do more. I still need to do more.”
Stella’s treatment included multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. She is still in treatment and is back at St. Jude quarterly for scans and other tests, her mom said.
For now, Stella is living “a very normal, fun, healthy, happy teenage life,” Scarlett said.
And Stella appreciates that whatever doctors learn while treating her will help children into the future and all over the world.
“You can think about 10 years down the road and some kid is going through the same thing that I’ve been going through. And what they’ve found with me can help someone else,” she said.
Supporting St. Jude
Scarlett has organized a team for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon®, Stella’s Striders, in honor of her daughter. They’ve raised more than $75,000 through the race team and individual donations, Scarlett said.
And Becki continues to raise money for St. Jude.
“It’s not hard to sell St. Jude. People know what it is, who they are, what their mission is. And whether they shell out a dollar or $100, it all goes to the kids and keeping that research going. It’s not a hard sell at all,” Becki said.
Becki will run the 5K this year. Stella will walk the 5K race with her buddies and lots of family and friends, Scarlett said.
Scarlett wants people to continue to support the work at St. Jude and not because they pity the children there with cancer.
“People think like, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot imagine being in that situation. It would kill me for my child to be in that situation.’ That is the narrative that when I’m talking to people, I try to change. It is difficult. It is hard. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. So, I’m not trying to take that away,” Scarlett said.
“But St. Jude is a happy place. Donate money to St. Jude, not because you feel sorry for kids with cancer. Donate because the families that get to go there are having the best experience that you could possibly imagine for a family living with a child with cancer. The hospital provides the most loving, warm, hopeful, joyful environment.
“And that’s what I want people to support, ensuring that families after us get to continue having this experience that we get to have there. It’s not doom and gloom, it is hope and joy and warmth.”