Teamwork is a term a lot of us throw around. If we’re lucky, we have a good team at work, a supportive family cheering us on, or maybe we even play a sport and have teammates on the rink, field, or pitch. Julia Miller takes teamwork to another dimension.
In the winter of 2018 this star right-winger on the Kanata Rangers hockey team was so tired she could barely skate. She got an ear infection, hives, dizzy spells so severe she needed support to stay standing and instead of being lively and social she was exhausted and needed to nap frequently. There were many appointments and blood tests revealing levels so low the lab thought they were mistakes, but no answers. It just seemed to be one thing after another. And then there was a call from the family doctor and a message that, “CHEO is waiting for you.”
Still there was no diagnosis, but Julia’s mom Carla knew something was seriously wrong. It took a week before the final diagnosis was made: acute myeloid leukemia (AML). This type of blood cancer is aggressive. AML comes on quickly and needs to be treated right away with cycles of intense chemotherapy. Julia’s diagnosis triggered a treatment regime that began with a lumbar puncture to determine if there were cancer cells in her spinal fluid and to inject chemo directly into the area. She had a broviac line inserted into her chest so that the chemotherapy and medication could be delivered into her blood stream. All this was needed just to start the process of fighting her cancer.
Julia would eventually have five cycles of chemotherapy. Each one was different and so were the effects. Julia remembers the intensity of the treatment, “They don’t wait at all, it’s not a ‘come and go’, it’s all day for 10 days, then another cycle. They start hard, then you get a month break.” And it was hard. This kind of treatment leaves the body drained and vulnerable. Despite being at CHEO, with her mom by her side 24/7, there were complications including infections and a fever so severe one night that the ICU team had to pack Julia in ice. Her sister Gracie who was home with dad, Mark, at these times when Julia was too fragile to have visitors remembers that it was, “A very scary night.”
But as always, Julia had her team. The CHEO team included infectious disease staff, oncology staff, the Bronze Team that manages CHEO’s oncology ward and Carla, who stayed in hospital for the entire time Julia was an inpatient. She slept in a reclining chair until nurses brought in a bariatric bed designed to accommodate larger patients that became a welcome haven for mom and daughter to snuggle. Julia’s family team also included Mark and Gracie, who were there when she was strong enough to have people around her and took care of the family pets that Julia loves so much. Her friends at school keep her in the loop through “Facetime Breakfasts” among other things. And her hockey team has supported her with messages of encouragement and gentle reminders that as one of the best players on the team, her recovery can’t come soon enough for them!
In August 2018 Julia finished her chemotherapy, and was discharged from CHEO, cancer free. While September was a very difficult month as her body detoxed from the treatment, she focused on realizing her most important goals: getting back on the ice and growing her hair back. Along with meeting these milestones, Julia has decided to join yet another team, the team of oncology patients who lend a helping hand to those children who are still fighting. She is turning her good fortune into gratitude and giving.
This May, Julia will be on the McDonald’s Dream Team at the CN Cycle for CHEO. Her story of perseverance will inspire those who are going through the struggle of their lives. The funds raised at this event support research into gentler treatments for cancers like AML, programs for patients to find pleasure and distraction during their time at CHEO and help for families whose daily lives are dedicated to helping their children. Through events like the CN Cycle for CHEO the entire community will join the team supporting young oncology patients like Julia. Join us!