Time was when it was hard to relate to Hillary Husband’s unique St. Jude marathon without having walked 26.2 miles in her house slippers.
But in a pandemic year that has forced the world to go virtual, get creative and stay socially safe, Hillary’s 2013 marathon — accomplished over several weeks of determined walking in the halls of St. Jude, in her house slippers, wearing a mask and toting an IV pole, while recovering from a bone marrow transplant — seems ripped from the headlines of 2020.
“I would be lying if I said that some of this social distancing hasn’t brought back some of those feelings of, I can’t see my friends, I can’t do what I would normally be doing,” she said. “Being isolated is hard.”
But Hillary, as ever, is walking the walk — and leading the way.
In 2013, her series of one-mile walks on the St. Jude transplant floor showed other patients, and the world, how determination and a competitive spirit can lift a person, even in the most challenging of times.
Today, she’s a 27-year-old, three-time cancer survivor who’s fully embracing life and its possibilities. Inspired by her St. Jude experience, she’s pursuing her PhD and plans a career in science. She’s also engaged to be married. And, she’s accepted the “4-Race Challenge” in this year’s virtual St. Jude Memphis Marathon, meaning she’ll complete a 5K, 10K, half and full marathon.
She’s running the first three events, but for the full marathon she’s got something special planned — she’s walking. It’s her nod to that transplant-floor marathon, which over the years has taken on something like legendary status.
“It’s actually a challenge on transplant floor now, to walk either a half marathon or a full marathon while you’re on the transplant floor,” she said. “It’s become a tradition. Kids do it all the time, and try to beat my time. It’s cool.”
'Just send me to St. Jude'
After Hillary was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2008, it could be said her treatment and care at St. Jude were beyond successful.
She was able, through studies in the St. Jude School Program by Chili’s, to keep her education on track and eventually graduate as high school valedictorian. She even continued her dancing, thanks to carefully timed chemotherapy treatments that enabled her to clog with her team at a national competition.
“I thought that was just a cool thing about St. Jude,” Hillary said. “That’s a neat testament to how they care about treating not just the disease, but the whole patient, and the family. I think that was special for my parents, too.”
“By the way,” said Katey, her mom, “she’s not mentioning that they won at that national competition.”
After 33 months of treatment, Hillary’s cancer was in remission.
Then came college, freshman year, and a sickness she didn’t want to believe was serious. Was it walking pneumonia, she wondered; was that sluggish feeling just the “freshman 15”?
It turned out the situation was much more dire and the diagnosis uncertain.
“Just send me to St. Jude,” she told doctors in the ICU of a local hospital. “They’ll take care of me.”
She was sedated and life-flighted to St. Jude. When she awoke from nine days in a medically induced coma, Hillary was told the bad news: She had cancer for a second time. It was T-lymphoblastic lymphoma, a subtype of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
There was good news, too: The mass in her chest had already shrunk by half, thanks to some quick work by St. Jude doctors.
Hillary’s cancer sequence — B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia followed within a year by T-lymphoblastic lymphoma — was rare. But her treatment was successful, and even rather uneventful, except for “that whole coma thing,” Hillary said with a survivor’s sense of humor. By the spring of 2013, she was back in college taking maintenance chemotherapy.
But then, at a subsequent checkup, her platelet count was “kind of low” — not alarmingly so, but enough to warrant a re-check the next week. Still, Hillary wasn’t worried, even when she started running a fever. It was finals week. She wrote it off to stress.
Cancer doesn’t strike three times, right?
But the leukemia had returned. Now she needed a bone marrow transplant.
'I bet you can't walk a marathon'
“I was hysterically nervous going into the transplant,” Hillary said.
“We all were, Hillary,” said Katey.
But the time spent recovering from the bone marrow transplant would provide some of Hillary’s fondest memories of St. Jude.
She remembers video game tournaments with nurses, and the nurse who’d dance with her when blood had to be drawn in the middle of the night. She remembers watching “every Adam Sandler movie ever made” and “the entirety of The Big Bang Theory.”
And with the bone marrow transplant floor sponsored by Tri Delta, she was forever reminded of all the sorority does for St. Jude, from the tens of millions of dollars raised to the dresses donated for patients to wear at the St. Jude Teen Formal. It’s a sorority to which Hillary, and her mom, would later become honorary initiates.
So many memories, then. So many moments that made recovery speed by.
“And we had a physical therapist come in every day,” Hillary said. “That’s sort of where the marathon came in.”
The marathon, yes. A full 26.2-mile marathon, Hillary-style.
“They encourage you to walk as much as you can,” she said. “We figured out 11 laps around the floor was one mile. So I made it my goal to walk 11 laps around the floor every day. Some days were bad, so I couldn’t do it. But most every day I tried to. And if I walked, I was going to walk 11 laps. I wasn’t going to do anything partial.”
So when a doctor challenged her — “I bet you can’t walk a marathon while you’re up here” — it was game on.
Hillary’s last day of walking, with 26 miles down and .2 to go, she rounded the last corner — with a mask on her face, and an IV pole trailing — to see a finish line and a crowd to cheer her on.
“That was literally her entire team — everybody,” Katey said. “It was the first time I had ever seen her whole team in one place, together, to realize how many people had helped us along the way.
“It was” — here, Hillary's mom begins to break up — “sorry. I’m a sap, sorry.”
“Are you crying?” Hillary said.
“She is a sap,” Hillary said, “but I love her.”
'My life's work'
These days, Hillary is literally living her dreams.
She is finishing her master’s degree and is on course for her PhD next August. Her area of study — pharmacokinetics, which focuses on the movement of drugs in the body — was inspired by her St. Jude experience.
“I’m hoping to land somewhere where I can work on immunotherapies, like biologics, or with oncology in general,” she said. “Because I think there’s a lot happening in that space right now. And I have this personal connection to it. So that’s where I want to spend my life’s work.”
She’s studying at Louisiana Tech, where she’s an adviser to the school’s Tri Delta chapter. “That thread,” she said of the sorority, “is kind of woven through my whole story from when I was 14 (and first diagnosed).”
“When I got the opportunity to join,” she added, “it was like this full-circle thing that I get to join this army of women who are doing these great things for the hospital that saved my life and saved my friends’ lives, and gave some of my friends more time, if unfortunately they didn’t make it.”
She’s also continued her childhood love of dance, these days as a teacher.
And she’s an ambassador for St. Jude, telling her story every chance she gets, such as on a recent episode of the Blatantly Honest with Makaila Nichols podcast, where she said, “You want me to walk around with an accordion and dance a jig, I will do whatever if it’s going to raise money for St. Jude. Period. But also in my science career, I want to be able to give back.”
The transplant-floor marathon is always a highlight of her story. Now, in a full-circle sort of way, Hillary will follow in her own footsteps on Dec. 5, when she walks 26.2 miles through her Louisiana hometown in the virtual St. Jude Memphis Marathon.
“I’m actually kind of nervous about trying to walk a marathon,” she said. “I think it’s going to take the majority of the day. But I think that’ll give me a lot of time to reflect.”
On how far she’s come.
On where she’s yet to go.
And how St. Jude is with her, every step of the way.