I was in the fourth grade when my cousin Jennifer was diagnosed with leukemia, so I don’t remember much other than being really scared and praying a lot. When I asked my cousin Rick, Jennifer’s father, to recount their experience, I was heartbroken. I simply can’t imagine what they went through.
This is the first in a series I’m writing for my Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Woman of the Year campaign. I am raising funds for LLS, whose mission is to “cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families.”
After reading this, you’ll see why I am 100% in on supporting LLS. No one should have to go through this. And next week I’ll share another story: how my other cousin, on the same side of the family, also battled childhood leukemia.
“That day was the most difficult day of my life,” Rick said. “It was first time my wife ever saw me cry.”
It was Mother’s Day in 1991, and Rick and Cindy had just learned that their three-year-old daughter Jennifer had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).
Rick and Cindy hugged and prayed, and then they realized they had so many questions.
“All we knew was that the word leukemia was associated with terminal illness and death,” he said. “I was not able to process that.”
Jennifer, her twin brother Jason, her older brother Geoff, and her parents soon learned that she would go through chemotherapy, a word Rick didn’t want to hear. His grandmother had died of colon cancer, and he saw how chemo ravaged her body.
As scary as it all was, Rick soon learned that had Jennifer been diagnosed just ten years earlier she would have had only a 50% chance of living another five years. Due to advances in course of treatments, Jennifer’s chance of mortality was 10%.
Rick endured some of the toughest years of his life as he watched Jennifer go through three and a half years of chemo, several bone marrow tests, several fluid taps, surgeries, and other hospitalizations.
“I remember having to restrain her several times in a fetal position while they drove a needle deep into her hip bone to extract bone marrow for testing,” he said. “I had to listen to her scream, ‘No!’ and ‘Daddy!’ as I helped hold her down.”
Rick also recalled frequently having to give her a bitter steroid medication that she wanted to spit out. She would scream, gag, cry, and try to free herself from her parents’ grip. Each time, they, too, were left in tears watching their little girl struggle.
“But she was a trouper and a strong little girl,” Rick said. “And she still is.”
As the treatments and medicine went on for more than three years, Jennifer eventually stopped putting up a fight.
“I don’t know if that was an answered prayer or if she just gave up fighting,” he said. “But it was never easy watching her little body weaken, her hair fall out, her sadness when she had a bad day.”
As their family went through Jennifer’s many years of cancer treatments, Rick wasn’t aware of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“After becoming involved with (LLS) in later years and finding out what they have done in the field of research and patient care, I’m certain Jen benefited from their efforts,” he said.
Fast-forward to today, and Jennifer is approaching her 29th year of being cancer-free. She hasn’t even seen her oncologist in nine years and won’t ever have to again unless the cancer returns.
Rick knows he’s lucky to have his little girl. Their many hospital stays put them in a position to meet other families with children going through the same thing. Often it was comforting, other times it was devastating, when a child’s cancer would prove fatal.
“Our hearts aches for their families,” Rick said. “They still do.”
In 2015, Rick walked his daughter down the aisle as she married the love of her life. And in December 2019, Rick and his wife Cindy where there when Jennifer and her husband Rob adopted a sweet little baby they named Arlen.
“To this day, I don’t know why God spared Jen. Except maybe because He had something bigger planned for her,” Rick said. “Who knows, maybe it has something to do with Arlen. Nevertheless, He allowed her to live, and that is not lost on Jen. Or me.”
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