The first thing to know is Addy is the visionary and CJ is the artist, but sometimes they switch roles.
The second thing to know is the two best friends love to crack each other up.
The two Central Illinois sixth-graders, who host Cancer Dancer, an annual fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital®, say exactly what they mean. And they don’t sugarcoat it. They are giggly and chatty, and they crack themselves up.
Today, they’re sitting at the table in Addy’s sunroom. The purpose of this meeting: to create a logo for their fundraiser.
It’s April, their fundraiser for St. Jude doesn’t take place until September, and they are only 11 years old. But they already meet often — despite CJ’s weekly chemotherapy at St. Jude and how sick she sometimes feels — to discuss the particulars of their event and how to improve on last year.
Addy conceived the idea for the fundraiser in 2021, when CJ first got sick.
“Here’s my vision,” says Addy, and the self-professed non-artist draws two swipes of purple and gold forming a circular shape. In the center of that, she draws a cancer awareness ribbon and a heart. Within the heart, she draws what looks like …
A blob? A chicken?
Well, it’s supposed to be the St. Jude logo.
“This is embarrassing. It’s so bad,” says Addy.
They both laugh.
“Be proud of your little monster, Addy.”
CJ tucks the drawing into her backpack so, later, she can take it home and create a refined version of the logo from Addy’s prototype.
They accomplish more during one business meeting than some adults do all day, which leads to a third thing to know about these two girls: They’re on a mission to help St. Jude kids everywhere through their Cancer Dancer fundraiser, and they say they won’t stop, to paraphrase St. Jude founder, Danny Thomas, until no child dies from cancer.
Addy the visionary
Addy’s grandmother saw something in the little girl: a restlessness, a drive, a desire to do good that, if channeled right, could move mountains.
So, in 2021, she gave her granddaughter a book about how to change the world. As the 9-year-old looked through the pages, her head filled with possibilities.
One suggestion was holding a party to support a good cause. Addy knew she could do that.
From then on, it was as if she saw the world through a different lens than before, wondering: What can I do to help others? How can I change the world?
Not long after, she and her mother, Carla, went through a drive-thru to get her favorite — a mango smoothie. Those smoothies were expensive, Addy knew, and it wasn’t her birthday or any other special day.
Looking back, Addy said, that expensive smoothie was her first clue something was wrong.
They got home and her mom broke the news: One of her best friends, CJ, had cancer and was traveling to St. Jude in Memphis for care.
“She told me, and it was like a full family cry fest,” said Addy. “I didn't know what it was because I was in fourth grade, and I thought that cancer was just like the flu, but 10 times worse.” She also knew that sometimes people died from it.
But even as she cried for her friend, Addy’s ideas were beginning to spark.
“I wanted to help St. Jude because I know it’s more than just CJ who’s going through this,” said Addy. “I wanted to help all of those kids out. It meant a lot to me because I felt that I could do something good.”
CJ and the double rainbow
CJ’s grandmother, a nurse, often babysat CJ and her younger sister. In July 2021, she began to see things that troubled her. CJ had less energy for playing than before. Her normally pale skin looked beyond pale.
It could be anemia, she told CJ’s mom, Natalie. Go to the doctor soon and get it checked out, she advised.
Natalie decided she probably would soon, keeping a watchful eye in the meantime. But when sunlight streaming through the kitchen window later caught CJ, showing her skin as a shade of yellow, every alarm bell in her mom’s body rang.
If it hadn’t been for CJ’s grandmother’s insight, would she have noticed? It’s a question Natalie asks herself now.
At the doctor's, CJ underwent a series of blood tests, which led to a diagnosis of B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was “devastating, life-changing news,” said Natalie.
Natalie’s terror took a physical form: an ache in the throat and a sick feeling in the stomach that wouldn’t go away. Not for three months.
Within 48 hours, CJ and her father were riding in an ambulance to St. Jude while Natalie drove her car behind it.
During the drive, Natalie saw a double rainbow hovering above her daughter’s ambulance.
She wasn’t the kind of person who believed in signs, yet this one had appeared to her at many significant moments in her life, such as the day CJ was born.
Amidst the terror of cancer, this double rainbow helped Natalie believe that hope lay ahead at St. Jude.
“The St. Jude medical team is the best of the best, and we felt that,” said Natalie. “The relief this provided us was tangible and allowed us to have the hope we so desperately needed.”
The shape of a heart
But the cancer was awful. The kind of thing you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, much less a 9-year-old girl.
Within hours of arriving at St. Jude, CJ underwent a lumbar puncture with chemotherapy and a bone marrow biopsy. They also placed a port inside her chest to administer chemotherapy.
“The first two weeks of cancer treatment resembled hell right here on earth,” said Natalie.
CJ threw up. Constantly. She had a hard time even keeping her pills down, to the point where her care team decided she needed a nasogastric (NG) tube. But the NG tube had been hard to place, and finally CJ said she would swallow the pills on her own.
Her determination to fight through the nausea astounded Natalie, who described this moment with the NG tube as a turning point for CJ. She took CJ outside on the grounds of St. Jude in her wheelchair. CJ turned her face toward the sun and took a deep breath of fresh air.
“Our 9-year-old had felt true hardship, sickness and pain,” said Natalie. “She was taking in this small, yet incredibly significant, moment of peace in a way most healthy kids never could. I wanted to sob and hug her, which was a normal yearning for me at that point.”
As the days went by, their cell phone pinged with new messages from Addy.
Every day, Addy sent a photo of herself forming the shape of a heart with her hands, reminding CJ how much she was loved. She sent care packages. Not just one, but several of them that summer so CJ would always know something good was on its way.
She began to call and text details of a St. Jude fundraiser she was planning in CJ’s honor. She already had a name for it: Cancer Dancer.
President in the making
A fundraising event could be anything, Addy realized. It could be based around what you loved, and Addy loved dancing. She decided to create a choreographed dance in honor of CJ and lead a performance for her neighbors. Like her grandmother’s book suggested, she would hold the St. Jude Cancer Dancer fundraiser in her own front yard.
She drew up a list of neighborhood girls for a fundraising committee and worked with her mom to decide on a date for the event. It would happen in September — Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
The event grew to include not only a choreographed dance, but also a bake sale, raffle and epic musical chairs game. A hair-cutting station would allow eventgoers to donate their hair to make a wig.
It felt like almost every day she was texting or calling CJ to tell her about one more new part of their event.
“I can’t believe Addy is doing all this,” CJ told Natalie, but then pondered it some more. “Oh wait, yes, I can. It’s Addy.”
Addy told friends she wanted to be president of the United States someday, and people believed she could. Things that would normally seem impossible felt possible with Addy around.
For example: As the new school year started in 2021 and CJ was set to return home to continue chemo at her nearby St. Jude-affiliated clinic, Addy emailed the principal to ask if she and CJ could be placed in the same class so she could help ease CJ’s transition. The principal agreed.
Later, she went to the principal and gave her a bracelet she’d ordered to support CJ. Soon, all the teachers and staff at school were wearing them.
In September 2021, as the inaugural Cancer Dancer fundraiser was taking place in Illinois, CJ’s family was at St. Jude in Memphis, celebrating the good news:
CJ, now in remission and past the hardest phase of her chemotherapy, could finally get most of her treatments from home.
After three long months, they were coming home from St. Jude.
CJ the artist
CJ’s walls at home are lined with her paintings, glimpses of the sunny way she sees the world.
There’s a painting of the ambulance with the double rainbow above it, which had given her mom so much hope. Addy has a nearly identical painting made by CJ up in her bedroom.
There’s a painting of her dog Jude, named after the research hospital, who cuddles with her on the sofa on days she’s too sick from chemo to want to do much else. There are rainbows and constellations, animals and sunrises.
She focuses on the joy.
Leading up to the 2022 Cancer Dancer fundraiser, CJ created more than 30 pieces of original art to sell at the event.
Her mom worried: “What if no one buys them?”
She needn’t have.
It turns out there’s high demand for what CJ, who paints the world in vivid color, and her best friend Addy, who rallies the love and compassion of an entire community, have to offer.
All the neighbors came to Cancer Dancer, and every single piece of CJ’s artwork was sold.