On Mar. 9, Spanish Lake Primary fourth graders Jillian Vickers and twin sister, Aubree, celebrated their tenth birthday, but double-digits was not the only milestone they enjoyed this year. Jillian recently emerged victorious from an eight-month battle with cancer.
Although painful to relive, Jillian’s mother, Ashlee Albarado, agreed to share their journey in the hopes of creating awareness of the reality of pediatric cancer. This is Jillian’s story.
Ten-year old Jillian Vickers was diagnosed on April 28, 2016, with Ewing’s Sarcoma disease in her right femur. Jillian was a very active little girl when she began to feel pain. First, Jillian started to complain saying, “My leg hurts, my leg hurts,” and after a week of Jillian being in pain her mother made a doctor’s appointment with their nurse practitioner.
During the visit Albarado mentioned Jillian’s leg pains to their practitioner, who ordered a knee x-ray, hip x-ray, and a scoliosis series. All of the scans came back completely normal but Jillian still felt an awful pain in her right leg. Their nurse practitioner referred them to an orthopedic surgeon who told Albarado to order Jillian custom orthotics for her shoes. During the time that it took for the orthotics to come in Jillian was constantly in pain. Finally, when the orthotics came in, Jillian and Albarado both claim that they did very little to help.
That weekend Albarado, her husband, and her dad left to go on their annual fishing trip, leaving Jillian with Albarado’s mom. During the visit Jillian’s grandmother noticed a bump on her leg. Overnight the bump grew and was very visible through Jillian’s clothing. Albarado heard about the bump that Sunday and intuitively knew that Jillian had cancer.
They took Jillian to the hospital and arranged to have all the scans and tests done in one day. On April 28, 2016, she was admitted to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. After their first PET scan, Jillian’s family consulted with many specialists, who then consulted with St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Although they did not have a definitive diagnosis, it was suspected to be Ewing’s or another type of bone cancer. From there, Jillian was accepted into St. Jude and her family was sent home to collect their thoughts. Four days later, they were on a plane to Memphis
“It’s not what you see; it is a different reality,” claims Jillian’s mom. As they walked through the front doors of St. Jude, Albarado recalls that there is another side to the joy, hope and happiness you see on TV.
Albarado says, “From the very beginning everything fell into place and all the pieces aligned.” Jillian’s family caught her cancer at just the right time. Aside from the primary tumor site, she had a small nodule in her right lung. When Jillian went in for her first biopsy, the surgeon was able to go into her right lung instead of disturbing her primary tumor. The biopsy tested positive for Ewing’s and Jillian’s doctor removed the small nodule from her lung. Albarado explains that Ewing’s is a very aggressive cancer and can spread through the body extremely fast. So, for Jillian to only have one small nodule not connected to her primary tumor sight was an amazing occurrence.
Soon after their arrival, Jillian was given a specific treatment plan of 14 cycles of chemotherapy every other week: receiving chemo one week and recovering the next. During her recovery weeks Jillian would receive Neupogen injections, which are shots meant to boost Jillian’s immune system and rebuild her white blood cell level. Jillian received an injection once a day for seven to 10 days depending on the chemotherapy cycle she was just administered. After staying at St. Jude for six weeks, Jillian and her family returned to Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge.
On Aug. 15, 2016, Jillian had a surgery known as Limb Sparring Surgery. In the surgery, doctors planned to remove Jillian’s tumor, but it was so high up on her leg that they had to figure out how to save her leg without amputating. Instead, Jillian received a partial hip replacement, removing her femur bone and inserting a titanium rod. During the surgery, the doctors discovered that 99 percent of Jillian’s tumor had died, above and beyond the 80 percent they originally had hoped for. Next, Jillian completed eight more cycles of chemo and went back to Memphis for her last set of scans, which all claimed that Jillian was in fact cancer free!
Jillian and her family are now home living their lives the best they can. Trying to adopt another new “normal” is one of the hardest things to do, states Jillian’s mom. Albarado says that since they have returned home, there is a lot of mixed emotions because “they will forever be waiting for the other shoe to drop.” She also believes that they were given this story for a reason, and that even though her family is trying to move on, you cannot back out of this life. Albarado states, “Jillian’s story was written a long time ago, and it was not for her to question.”
During her cancer journey, school was something that Jillian held very close to her heart. For most kids, the hospital pushes for them to take part in a hospital homebound program, where a teacher would be sent to Jillian so she could keep up with school work. Instead, Jillian insisted that she go to Spanish Lake Primary. Her doctors approved of her attending school as long as her white blood cell counts were up and she was not in the middle of a chemo cycle. Albarado says that keeping up with Jillian’s school work was not always easy, but it was important to Jillian to stay in school. Today, Jillian is all caught up at school and is happy to be back, saying that she missed her friends the most of all.
Although they are adjusting to life after cancer, Jillian’s journey is not over. She will return to the hospital for routine scans over the next 10 years to ensure the cancer does not return with her first post-treatment scans on Apr. 5, 2017. She is also looking to help others.
Jillian and her family were so overwhelmed with the generosity and support they received, and they plan to pay it forward. Last year, Albarado with the help of friends organized an event known as Jillian’s Fall Jamboree. The event took place in October at Lamar Dixon and raised funds to help Jillian’s family. They plan to make it an annual event with donations going to another local family battling cancer.
Jillian and her twin, Aubree, attend Spanish Lake Primary with little sister Addyson. Their eldest sister, Jordyn, is an eighth grade student at Dutchtown Middle School.
For more information about Ewing’s Sarcoma, visit stjude.org/disease/ewing-sarcoma.html.