Faith: Compassion With a Smile
Asked to describe herself in five words, Faith chooses outgoing, caring, happy, compassionate and loving.
She doesn’t choose strong, but she is.
When the doctor stopped talking that day in September, her mom, Mindy’s, first thought was, “How is this happening? She came in for a swollen leg.”
Faith had just been diagnosed with a type of bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma, yet faced it with all the spirit of her name. “I knew I was going to get through it,” she said. “Even though I didn’t like to know I had it. It was not a happy day.”
When it became clear surgery was not an option, Faith was referred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment.
She has cancer in her pelvis and femur; she has hard days. But you wouldn’t guess it.
“At 10 years old, she chooses to smile and be happy,” said Mindy. “She’s had chemotherapy sometimes five days a week with proton therapy on top of it, feeling crummy and awful, and someone can walk in the room and she lights up and says, 'hi,' smiles. She’s the brightest, sweetest, funniest, strongest young lady that I know. She smiles her way through life.”
Faith, who loves dogs and making art, has five more rounds of chemotherapy to go. Once this is behind her, she’d like to become a volunteer who helps other people get through cancer, too.
“We’re going to keep going, keep going, keep going,” she said of her mindset during the trials of treatment. “I’m thinking, okay, we’re going to be close to done soon. There’s a lot of people that have gone through this and look at them now. I got this.”
Ashtyn: Small But Mighty Competitor
We see Ashtyn do a somersault under the watchful eye of her cheer gym coach. She lands it, and goes again.
In an interview taped last year, the coach glances at the little girl, who is 7 now, and says she’s the one who reminds him to keep going no matter what.
She is building her muscles, practicing her movements until her body knows them all – the routine a familiar one to anyone who’s ever devoted themselves to a sport.
“’Mighty Ashtyn’ is what we call her because she is small, but mighty,” said Ashtyn’s mom, Brittney.
“I’m not small!” said Ashtyn, who wants to be like her big sister, Aubrey.
But she doesn’t argue with mighty.
Not many have Ashtyn’s intensity or strength – then or now.
Then: Ashtyn was a high-level athlete at only 5 years old as a competitive cheerleader and softball player.
Now: She trains with the intensity of someone trying to make up for lost time.
Where that lost time went: brain cancer, and the treatment and rebuilding that goes along with it.
There are gymnastics metaphors to insert here. You could say Ashtyn flipped and then her world flipped.
“I’m a family and sports medicine physician,” said Brittney. “I may not be giving a cancer diagnosis, but every time I speak to a patient and give them a diagnosis, it changes their lives. I mean, that’s what happened to us.”
Ashtyn was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer. She received surgery and chemotherapy at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, but the ability to receive proton beam therapy there was the real draw for the family. Proton therapy triangulates directly on the tumor itself, sparing the normal tissue.
An image: Ashtyn flying in a superhero mask and cape through the halls of St. Jude, supported by her parents and having just finished her final chemo.
But hurtling toward what?
They didn’t know if she’d lost her acrobatic skills or if she’d need to start from scratch and relearn everything. And if that happened, would she be discouraged?
Would the little girl who wore the “No Hair, Don’t Care” shirt and the out-sized bows on her turban during treatment become a shrinking flower?
It hasn’t happened.
For the rest of her life, cancer will be part of Ashtyn’s story. But that chapter is over and Ashtyn is all forward movement today.
She lands her flip. She nails it.
Said her mom Kiara: “She’s one of the strongest kids that I have ever met in my life."
Emily: Courage to Look Forward
Say this much for Emily: She doesn’t fear doctors’ appointments. In fact, she eagerly anticipates them.
At least the ones she has at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I get excited every year for my annual checkups to see everyone who takes such great care of my health, but I also see new patients and families and I see the importance of this extraordinary hospital,” Emily wrote in an email.
Now a freshman in college, the Virginia native has ties with St. Jude extending back to early childhood. She wasn’t quite 2 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.
The diagnosis sent Emily on a two-and-a-half-year course of treatment with chemotherapy. But she has continued to return in the years since for follow-up care and appointments.
“St. Jude has never stopped taking care of me long after my treatment ended,” she said.
More recently, Emily availed herself of a special St. Jude program. In June 2014, the hospital opened the St. Jude Fertility Clinic, which was established to improve the chances that patients and long-term survivors will be able to have children despite the often damaging effects of the chemotherapy and radiation they received during treatment.
Last year, after doctors discovered Emily most likely would be unable to have children naturally as a result of her chemotherapy, they retrieved her eggs, which will be stored free of cost until she’s 35.
“They are giving me hope to have a family,” she said.
Emily enjoys hobbies that include fashion (with a special interest in thrift shopping), community work and spending time with friends and family. She also has a love of all animals.
As for a college major, she’s undecided – torn between fashion and nursing.
Whatever course her life takes, however, Emily said she’ll be guided in part by her experience at St. Jude.
“The love I received from the many nurses, doctors, and volunteers is something that I carry with me every day,” she said.
“St. Jude taught me that as long as you have hope and love, then you can find the courage to face anything.”
Madison: Choosing Friendship Over Fear
Madison made her first-ever trip to New York at the beginning of this year, right before COVID-19 became a household name and upended the world.
Was she nervous about her trip? Not even a little bit. Quite the opposite, actually. She was excited to visit the big city. It was everything that Madison, an artist at heart and now a designer by training, dreamed it would be.
Madison, who became a patient at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in 2017, is not afraid of much of anything.
Diagnosed with stage II Hodgkin lymphoma just as she was starting college, Madison has learned how to endure all types of situations, including the most challenging ones like cancer treatment. And she’s done it all with her perpetual sunny-side personality. Her brightness, it seems, radiates from within.
Madison remained undaunted through four rounds of chemotherapy and months of physical and occupational therapy. She was unfazed when social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic canceled her college graduation in May.
Her upbeat nature is a conscious decision on her part to not let fear win. Instead of being afraid of what she cannot control, Madison chooses to embrace life and all of its unknowns, because, as she puts it, those unknowns “that seemed scary ended up bringing some of my greatest gifts in life.”
Those unknowns also led to some memorable moments like speaking to thousands of participants and spectators at the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend and being a part of another St. Jude fundraising event where her artwork was seen by hundreds of people and auctioned to raise thousands of dollars.
For Madison, the unknown that almost held her back was taking the leap to make friends at St. Jude. She was, at first, wildly against making friends within those walls, because she didn’t want to lose them.
But then Madison met a patient 10 years her junior. They became close, in part because of similarities in their treatment. They bonded, too, over a typical girl thing – makeup. To this day, they stay in touch, talking every day and FaceTiming weekly. Madison, who has become a big sister of sorts, is who this younger patient turns to when she gets nervous about upcoming appointments.
“I wouldn’t trade those people or friendships for anything,” Madison said. “They understood me, were there for me and could relate to me like no one else could. Regardless of age difference or cultural background or socioeconomic status, we were all there for a reason. They are my family.”
For Madison, St. Jude will always be home, and the patients there her family, with a bond that goes deeper than friendship.
Colt: With Everything, A Happy Heart
It’s one thing for a kid to be happy-go-lucky. It’s another for a kid to stay happy when the going is anything but.
In October 2018, Colt's family learned he had cancer: a soft tissue tumor called rhabdomyosarcoma was growing in his left ear.
But aside from the pain prior to diagnosis, Colt's mom, Stephanie, can’t really think of a time when the situation seemed to get her little boy down. Referred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Colt had to face chemotherapy and proton therapy. But each visit to the hospital for treatment was also an occasion to see his buddies, the doctors and nurses. Nearly every morning, he got revved up to his favorite Christian rock song, and met the day with a happy heart.
After completing cancer treatment in January, Colt started ice skating lessons so he could learn to play hockey just like his big brother, Ty. With lessons currently on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, he and Ty have turned their basement into a pretend hockey rink.
Colt has already demonstrated that things don’t have to be perfect for him to be perfectly content.
Abraham: The Best Big Brother
He makes snow angels in the winter and pushes a scooter during warmer months, but 5-year-old Abraham has always been just as happy engaging in indoor activities like painting and piecing together puzzles.
“He likes the artistic side very much,” said his dad, Abraham.
“He’s pretty easy to keep entertained,” added his mom, Andrea.
After their little boy turned 3, however, Abraham and Andrea started noticing problems. One day in February 2018, right before his younger sister’s birthday, his right eye temporarily turned inward, as if it were crossed.
“And we’re like, ‘What is this? Why?’” Andrea said.
A CT scan not only confirmed the presence of a tumor, but showed it was already large and required immediate treatment. “At that moment, our lives changed…,” Abraham’s dad said. “I was in shock.”
An ambulance whisked Abraham off to a hospital, where a shunt procedure relieved pressure from a buildup of fluid in his brain. The following day, surgeons removed the tumor.
Abraham and Andrea learned their son had a type of brain cancer known as medulloblastoma.
“It was just terrifying,” said his mom. “It broke my heart and made me so scared for him.”
But Andrea, the researcher in the family, scoured the Internet. “Everything I was looking up online said St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is the best place for childhood cancer,” she said. So the family got a referral.
Andrea can’t forget the relief she experienced upon bringing Abraham to St. Jude. “I don’t know how to explain it exactly,” she said, “but I felt a sense of calm that I hadn’t had since surgery.”
Still, doctors told Abraham and Andrea to prepare for a "marathon" to overcome the cancer.
At St. Jude, Abraham’s treatment plan included high-dose radiation therapy, as well as seven months of chemotherapy. He’s finished with treatment now and returns for checkups.
The youngster is doing well and enjoys playing with his sister and cousin. He’s a loving, caring older brother who protects and nurtures his little sister, Andrea said.
The experience showed how “evil” cancer is, she added. “It’s an awful thing that I wish upon nobody.”
Maelin-Kate: Funny Old Soul
Megan, Maelin-Kate’s mom, describes her daughter as an “old soul.” But don’t take that to mean she’s the too-serious sort. “She's really funny. She's just super joyful,” Megan said. “She loves everything about life.”
And why wouldn’t she? Her family is large and loving, and, tiny though she is, she’s quickly fallen in step with her four older brothers, who adore their sister and have stood by her, wanting to protect her through the challenges she’s faced.
Life has already been tough for the 5-year-old. Adopted from China, she was brought home by her mom and dad, Paul, and found to have hip dysplasia, which was corrected with surgery, though her lab work came back as abnormal.
They were lucky to have a St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital affiliate clinic near their home in Alabama, and were there within a week. That’s where their luck ended – without any family history, Megan said, “We really didn't know what we were looking for. So their plan was just to test a bunch of different things and just figure it out.”
Luck, however, would find Maelin-Kate once again when they were introduced to a doctor before leaving the clinic. She was a specialist who had worked with Fanconi anemia in Minnesota, and recognized it right away in the blood work.
Fanconi anemia is a very rare genetic blood disorder that prevents bone marrow from making enough new blood cells for the body to work properly. Without a bone marrow transplant, it could lead to leukemia.
Despite such a harrowing diagnosis – without a blood relation, finding a matching donor would be a challenge – Megan said, “Every day, she finds a reason why it's the best day ever.”
And it isn’t the big things in life making her days the best ever, Maelin-Kate finds joy in the smallest ways. “She’ll say, ‘I see a butterfly, it’s the best day ever’ or ‘We ate spaghetti for dinner, it’s the best day ever.’”
It was truly the best day ever when a donor was eventually found and a transplant completed at St. Jude before the Fanconi anemia turned into leukemia.
The family clings to their faith and to the good fortune they’ve had despite the challenges. It’s in the everyday surprises – butterflies and spaghetti dinners – where Maelin-Kate finds happiness, where she finds the smiles that have helped light up the days of her mom, dad and brothers.
Jordyn: Heart of a Champion
In the good-natured rivalry with gravity that is gymnastics, there’s more to it than leaping and swinging and hurtling through the air.
You’ve also got to stick the landing.
You could say 15-year-old Jordyn’s performance has been good as gold — literally and figuratively.
She’s a young gymnast with more than 90 medals and numerous state titles to her credit.
But when her rising career was halted by cancer, left hanging through two-and-a-half years of treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she persevered like a champ. She landed not just back in the sport she loves, but in her familiar place atop the medals podium.
At her first competition back, Jordyn earned gold medals for all-around, bars and beam.
“It’s just crazy to think about where I was, to where I am now,” she said. “Right now, I feel like I could do anything. I could go to college, be a nurse, be a doctor, be a champion. Anything.”
Jordyn was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) just a few months before her 10th birthday. The girl who had been a gymnast for more than half of her young life, who spent 20 hours a week in the gym, suddenly was a cancer patient with an uncertain future.
“Initially, she just decided that she was done with gym, she couldn’t do it, and so she was DONE,” said her mom, Chastity. “And you know, that hurt her, because we knew that was something that she loved. And we prayed that the Lord will give her her zeal back for it.”
The zeal came bounding back almost immediately. Within a month of diagnosis, Jordyn was watching gymnastics videos. Later, there would be visits to the gym, to see her friends.
Jordyn believed she’d make it back to the sport, and that belief helped her stay hopeful during treatment.
She also came to realize she wouldn’t just be another gymnast once she returned. She’d be an inspiration.
“Because she knows that leukemia will be her story,” Chastity said. “Leukemia’s gonna be her platform — it’s her story to tell, you know, to those children that are faced with things. You know, Hey, I had to stop, and I was able to come back.”
Leaping and swinging, hurtling through the air and then sticking that landing — that’s part of Jordyn’s story. It’s a good part. But the backstory, of overcoming cancer and returning like a champ to the sport she loves, is even better.
“St. Jude helped me beat cancer,” Jordyn said. “I think it’s going to help me get through life in general, and I’m going to remember it forever.”
Amris: Loves a Good Laugh
Amris’ little dog doesn’t realize she’s a pipsqueak, which is kind of hilarious, if you ask Amris.
“She thinks she’s big, like that, but she’s little, like that,” said Amris, who is 10.
The Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix is named “She,” which can get confusing because Amris herself is a she and so is her younger sister. And her mom, too, for that matter.
But that kind of confusion gives the family another excuse to laugh.
And Amris is a kid who loves to laugh.
She says it’s one of the traits she inherited from her mom. “Well, I have a freckle face and I have fair skin like her,” said Amris. “Let’s see. I’m always smiling like her.”
She first went through treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for brain cancer when she was 2 years old, and doesn’t remember the chemo or the radiation, but she does remember the jukebox.
“We would dance to some Alvin and the Chipmunks,” said Amris, “and we would be up all night and play the songs again and again and again. …Oh, yeah, I remember it.”
The philosophy according to Amris goes like this: There should be more good times, fewer bad times. And when there are bad times, like when the atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor came back in 2019, you should, “suck it up,” as she tells her parents, and look for a reason to smile.
“She’s the light that lights up the room,” said her dad Ross. “She’s always smiling, she’s always got love in her heart for everyone, and even the toughest of situations, she smiles her way through it. She just rolls with the punches. She’s tougher than either my wife or I, I can guarantee you that, and she’s just my hero.”
Her relapse treatment at St. Jude has included hyperbaric oxygen, proton beam therapy to her brain and spine, and chemotherapy, which, she says, “makes me feel different than myself.”
Cancer treatment is sometimes hard, she will tell you.
But there are things that make it better, like playing the ukulele with her Child Life specialist because she loves to play it at home. (She’s also great at the piano.)
And there’s Puggles, the therapy dog.
“He’s cute. He’s really cute,” said Amris. “He just comes around and he wants to get pet.”
His fur is so soft, and he seems to enjoy the time with her as much as she enjoys the time with him. So why not linger here a moment with Puggles? If it makes you happy, why not?