Sierra, St. Jude and a tumor named Gertrude
Diagnosed with a brain tumor at 15, Sierra gave her nemesis a name and devoted herself to defeating it.
August 20, 2020 • 4 min
Before the fist-sized mass near Sierra’s brainstem had even been diagnosed as cancerous, her dad’s mind raced to the darkest of places.
“I just thought, we’ve got six months if we’re lucky,” Tim said. “She’s an amazing girl, and I just felt that the world was going to miss out on her, because she wasn’t going to live to see her 16th birthday.”
Happily, he was wrong about all but one thing:
She’s an amazing girl.
How else to describe a girl who handled cancer — medulloblastoma, a brain tumor — with such pluck, humor and verve for life?
A girl who named her tumor “Gertrude.” (“No offense to any Gertrudes,” she said, “but it just sounded like a tumor name.”)
A girl given to such social media posts as “So I had lung surgery on Friday (check that off the bucket list),” and whose list of “essentials” for the St. Jude Teen Formal included corsage and earrings, but also vomit bag and “mask (decorated to match the dress).”
A girl whose entry in the St. Jude Teen Art show incorporated her radiation mask, eye patch, pill bottles and medical arm bands — and yet, with a bright yellow flower to represent each round of chemotherapy, the embroidered piece teemed with life and uplift.
Or a girl who has combined her gift for art with her gratitude for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, creating and selling origami crane earrings and donating all the profits? (Sample sales pitch: “Special holiday shiny cranes! Limited edition — until I run out of paper.”)
It’s no wonder dad’s mind is racing to happier places these days, wondering what Sierra — now 16, back home after treatment, and returning to St. Jude for regular checks — will do with her second-chance life.
Proud father that he is, he’s not ruling out Sierra’s ability to “change the world.”
After all, it’s what parents envision for their amazing children.
The symptoms began after a hard fall while ice skating in August 2018. Concussions happen, right?
But a couple of months later, as symptoms continued, an MRI confirmed the mass, later determined to be a brain tumor. From there, the bad news got worse. The tumor had attached to Sierra’s brainstem, and so surgeons had to leave part of Gertrude — as she was already calling it — behind when they operated.
And, Sierra’s cancer was metastatic, meaning it had spread, into her brain and spine. Or, as Cathy, Sierra’s mom, wrote in an online journal on the day of the four-hour operation:
The bad news is that Gertrude has accomplices.
Those small metastases were dubbed, naturally, “the Gerdettes.” They also appear in Sierra’s art show entry, which she shared on social media. One commenter called it “art therapy at its finest,” and another said it was “absolutely beautiful and powerful.”
Sierra arrived at St. Jude about a week after surgery. Her treatment: 30 rounds of radiation therapy, without sedation, followed by seven months of chemotherapy. But it was more than that. It was the daily slog of slowly getting well. The nausea, vomiting and needle sticks. Side effects such as jaw pain and nerve pain. Hair loss. Headaches.
As Cathy wrote in her online journal, about four months into treatment at St. Jude:
Sierra has been trying to think of a term for the anti-bucket list: All the things you don’t want to experience, but once you have, you can say, OK, I’ve done that. Brain surgery? Check. Radiation? Check. Being bald? Check. Blood transfusions? Check. Anaphylaxis? Check, baby.
She continued, borrowing a thought from her cousin:
… we just have to believe that Gertrude feels as bad as Sierra does, and that all these potions are working their magic to make the tumor and the minions disappear.
Proud and thankful
Sierra is now back home and approaching another birthday. She has her driver’s permit. She took her PSAT — “and nailed it,” mom said, “so the chemo and the radiation didn’t knock out any of her natural genius.”
Since taking the PSAT, Sierra has taken the ACT twice. After a 31 on her first try, she scored a 32 — putting her in the 97th percentile nationally.
"Even with that she still wants to give it one more try," Cathy said. "She has been actively looking at colleges and working on her essays and applications. She is determined to go places."
Dad, who once feared the worst, is equally wowed by his daughter. He tells her, “I’m so incredibly impressed with your resilience, your humor, your kindness even through these incredibly horrible situations.”
Sierra, for her part, doesn’t claim to have done any of this alone. She’s thankful for her family and friends, for strangers who became aware of her story and sent cards of encouragement. She’s thankful for everyone at St. Jude — fellow patients, her physical therapist, teacher, oncologist, clinic staff…
“I think that if I went somewhere other than St. Jude,” she said, “just everything would have turned out so differently.”
St. Jude was a place where Sierra could not just get better, but “be my best.” A place where she could make friends, be a teenager, and enjoy some sense of normalcy — from attending Teen Formal to, of course, practicing her art.
The art of living.