“You can say I traded an ordinary childhood for an extraordinary childhood.” - Jessica Sims of her St. Jude experience
Jessica Sims, diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at 7 years old, speaks thoughtfully, laughs easily, and talks casually about matters of great complexity.
Take, for instance, the way she describes her early interest in science, where she learned about Gregor Mendel who, through his work on pea plants, discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance. During this time, said Jessica, "I learned that the odds of you being born is one-over-some-astronomical-number. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, you really are unique. There’s really no one else like you.’”
Today, at 23, a cancer survivor and recent chemical engineering graduate, she understands more than her peers that we have a finite time on Earth, and it’s not to be wasted.
Yet, far from being a downer, she’s like a shot of can-do optimism.
“If you say that, can you tell them I’m the only shot that doesn’t hurt?” said Jessica.
Through a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy over the course of several months, she was cured at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“Why am I still here?” she wants to know. “Why are any of us here?”
This desire to know. These big questions. They’ve made her a seeker, a scientist. They’ve propelled her through her life.
Missing one full year
Two weeks into second grade, Jessica's mom noticed something she hadn’t seen before — a bump the size of a baseball on Jessica’s thigh.
After X-rays and an MRI came a diagnosis of stage 4 alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the muscles. “Actually, I think my parents talked around the word [cancer],” said Jessica. They used the word “surgery,” and that was bad enough.
“I cried because I was very scared,” said Jessica. “What 7-year-old wants to hear they have to have surgery?”
She remembers going back to school that day with “bandages on me from where they drew my blood, and I think I just got my homework and went home.”
It would be more than a year before Jessica set foot back into a traditional classroom.
Missing an entire school year. She cites this as the worst thing about having cancer.
An extraordinary childhood
Jessica has memorized dozens of mathematical formulas in her time. She knows the periodic table by heart. She’s kept journals and binders full of study notes. She can remember the butterfly pillow with red wings and blue spots she packed on the night before her parents drove her to St. Jude.
But she says the harder aspects of her St. Jude experience are tough to recollect, “a blur.”
She relies on her parents' memories to fill in the blanks.
"She was very sick," said her dad, Tony. "When we first got to St. Jude, they gave her a 14 percent chance of survival for five years. That was really devastating to us."
He and Jessica's mom, Brenda, held back their fear and pain as much as they could — so Jessica wouldn't see it.
"When she started taking her chemo, I was coming back up there with them for a week’s visit and my wife called me and told me, 'She’s going to look a little bit different, so don’t let her see you fall apart,'" said Tony. "I didn’t know how different she was going to look. I never experienced anything like that before. She had lost just about all of her hair."
"I’ve been a firefighter for 37 years," said Tony. "Just some of the things that I saw her go through, I don’t know if I would have been as brave as she was. And I have to really be honest with you about it: She was really a brave little person."
Jessica has only a few vague memories of the rougher times. For her, the primary takeaway of her time at St. Jude — underlined, annotated and starred as the main idea — was love.
She remembers the first person she spoke to at St. Jude was a nurse with “the sweetest voice ever. She was honestly so sweet.” Tony and Brenda remember that woman, too, as the one who helped them through.
"She was just trying to cheer us on to not give up," said Tony. "And so I’m glad we listened to her because we were really in a tailspin."
That nurse set the tone.
“When you start treatment there, it’s like you have a new family,” said Jessica. “They want to make sure that you’re comfortable and things are going well. And when bad news comes up, they’re worried, too.”
Still, her most vivid memories are of genuinely good times.
“I remember when they actually rolled out a huge pad of bubble wrap, and they told us to have at it. I remember I took my IV and I rolled right over it,” said Jessica. “It was so much fun.”
She looked forward to Tuesdays when dogs came to visit the kids through the Doggy Daze program, and on Halloween, she said, “They would deck out every clinic, every floor, with a theme. We would walk around the hospital and they would fill our bags with candy.”
Jessica says the miracle of St. Jude is not just the science or the cures, but the way they gave her a childhood that was better and more remarkable than she might have had otherwise.
“I started telling people that even though my childhood was surrounded by unusual circumstances, I had an extraordinary childhood,” said Jessica. “You can say I traded an ordinary childhood for an extraordinary childhood.”
Faith and science intertwined
Jessica may have missed more than a year of school, but she never stopped learning.
"She was always asking questions when the doctors came in and she always had a big conversation about what they did or why they did it," said Tony. "And they would always be generous and explain it to her."
And she never stopped making connections.
Jessica’s time at St. Jude deepened her faith in God “because I’m described as a miracle, a walking miracle,” said Jessica.
She pondered that a lot as a little girl.
Her dad saw her gravitate to science and math in middle school, so he encouraged her in that direction. “Chemistry for me was so complicated but interesting at the same time," Jessica said, "because you just think, ‘Wow, look at all that’s happening in a single reaction.’ And for me actually, it was also very faith-affirming because it was so complicated.
“When I look at anything science-related, I always think, ‘It takes years for someone to master a complete understanding of this, maybe even a lifetime.’ And then to think that God did this in seconds to a few days is just mind-blowing to me."
Science for Jessica has been a place to put all her big questions to the test: Where does life come from? Why are we here? How does this happen?
Her parents have questions, too. How did they get to this wonderful place after such hardship?
"We still take it one day at a time even though she’s 23 years old," said Tony. "We just take it one day at a time."
Stronger for it
Chemical engineering jobs have been scarce because of COVID-19, but Jessica isn’t worried. She’s ridden out uncertainty before and come out stronger for it.
For now, she’s had time to help her sister’s fledgling wholesale real estate business, learn new songs on the piano, read her Bible and bond with her 2-year-old niece.
“We’re working to build a relationship with her, you know?” said Jessica “And make sure she knows me and my mom and my dad. And just letting her know she has a loving family that surrounds her.”
You see, Jessica invests in people. The same way her dad invested in her, urging her to explore her interests in math and science even though it was hard. And even though there weren’t many other Black girls doing the same thing.
The same way her mom invested in her by taking care of her and lifting every member of her family up because of what Jessica calls "her servant heart."
She wants to be that same kind of mentor for other girls and women of color.
“We need more diversity in medicine. The same is true for engineering,” said Jessica. “I want people to see, ‘Hey, I did it. You can, too. You just gotta work hard for it.’”
She wants to be a role model for kids who have cancer, too.
Jessica’s thigh has a slightly caved-in look where the surgeon took muscle out with the tumor.
She wishes it was less subtle so people would ask her about it. She wants to talk about St. Jude and how transformative it was.
“Because if you think about it, it’s a part of me,” said Jessica. “It’s a contributing factor to the person I am today.”