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Several weeks into her senior year at Kenowa Hills High School, Ellie Wilcox started to feel extremely tired. At a time she envisioned would be her best high school year, Ellie, 17, found herself plagued by nose bleeds, bruising and severe headaches.
A visit to her pediatrician led to an appointment with Dr. James Fahner, division chief for pediatric hematology and oncology at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Fahner gave her the diagnosis: Leukemia, specifically High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
“My dreams of going away to school were crushed,” she would recall later in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qigFBrGtsrs
She and her family were approached to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
“We weren’t versed in this whole world, yet, and we still thought you went on a clinical trial when there was no other option.”
She and her folks learned that wasn’t true: Joining this clinical trial could change and improve the standard of care for children like Ellie.
“I recall saying to my family: ‘If I have to endure this treatment, I would feel good knowing a trial might make a difference for another child having to experience this.’ ”
As part of the trial, Ellie was randomly selected to receive treatment that was longer and stronger than standard ALL treatment.
Determined to go to college, she discovered Grand Rapids Community College and its Disability Support Team.
“I realized I could be a college student and a chemotherapy patient at the same time.”
She would graduate from GRCC, attend Grand Valley State University and go on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Michigan University.
She went through chemotherapy, multiple spinal taps and hospitalizations for nearly three years. Diagnosed Oct. 27, 2000, she finished treatment in 2003. Her health was monitored regularly for the next five years.
At the end of her treatment, scans showed no evidence of disease, and Ellie looked forward to hitting her 5-year remission mark when she could consider herself cured.
“That’s your favorite C-word after your-not-so-favorite C-word,” she said.
“I never relapsed after being in remission. I feel thankful to the clinical trial for my success in beating cancer.”
Ellie’s clinical trial results permanently changed the standard of care for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her choice to participate in a clinical trial contributed to doctors’ ability today to cure more children with less toxicity.
At 34, life looks much different.
In August 2013, Ellie married her best friend, Travis.
Although advances in treatment and follow-up care are reducing the risks, adults treated for cancer as children often experience long-term side effects or recurrent cancers.
Although Ellie has avascular necrosis in her hips, a condition that might someday require a hip replacement, and she has dealt with fertility issues, she and her husband welcomed their first child, a daughter named Quinnlyn, in May 2016.
Ellie’s cancer experience fueled an urge to work on behalf of children.
A dynamo and multitasker extraordinaire, she serves as director of leadership giving for Make-A-Wish Michigan working with children facing critical illnesses. That has forged yet another connection with Fahner, chairman of the Make-A-Wish America’s medical advisory council.
She’s is a member of the Patient Advisory Committee of the Cancer Research Consortium of West Michigan, and a member of the Patient and Family Advocacy Council for Spectrum Health, focusing on cancer care.
Cancer has taught her lasting lessons.
“At 17, I thought I was invincible. I had all my plans made, and this is how life will go. I learned very young that life is unpredictable.
“If you can take things in stride and one day at a time and treat others well, it will get you far.”