Nov. 25, 2013 at 11:27 AM ET
Five weeks after being born prematurely, Summer Wilson was already receiving chemotherapy treatments to combat a rare cancer that mystified doctors.
The cancer appeared as a large tumor in her right arm and was ultimately diagnosed by doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis as stage 3 hemangiopericytoma. The malignant tumor was so rare that at the time only nine cases of it had been documented in the country.
Before Summer was taken to St. Jude, doctors near her hometown were confounded by the illness. But her mother refused to give up, researching in medical journals, contacting children's hospitals and digging around online to try to get to the bottom of Summer's condition until she came in contact with the doctors at St. Jude.
“The best-case scenario that we were given was to take her home and love her,’’ her mother, Deanna, told TODAY Monday. She said that doctors told her: “We’re probably going to be able to amputate her arm, but she’s not going to make it.”
Instead, the doctors at St. Jude were able to save her life and her arm, and today Summer is a healthy 17-year-old able to participate in everything from gymnastics to tennis to horseback riding.
"It's rewarding,'' she said on TODAY Monday. "You proved someone wrong."
Wilson is one of many victories in St. Jude's war against childhood cancer that TODAY has chronicled. For the last decade, TODAY has introduced viewers to children fighting cancer as part of the show’s annual “Thanks and Giving” series highlighting the work of the dedicated doctors at St. Jude, who take on the toughest childhood cancer cases from all over the world.
Of the 46 children TODAY has introduced to viewers over the past decade of “Thanks and Giving,’’ three have lost their lives. It's those losses that spur the doctors at St. Jude to continue to work toward higher cure rates.
“Just in the last decade, we've pushed cure rates for ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) in children from 80 percent to over 90 percent,” Dr. William Evans, CEO of St. Jude, told TODAY. “We are confident that what we're learning from the genome project is going to allow us to do that for other types of childhood cancer.”
The work of the doctors at St. Jude also has created grateful survivors eager to give back. Lauren Lewis, 9, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, but is now cancer-free after being treated at St. Jude. Now she is working to raise money for the hospital.
"I design clothing used for a fashion shoot called Sewing Into Dreams,'' Lewis told Kerry Sanders in an interview at St. Jude that aired Monday on TODAY. "We have 'dream makers' that make the clothes."
"It's very hard to forget,'' Lauren's mother, Benita Lewis, told Sanders about the initial diagnosis. "It's devastating just to be told your child has cancer, and for us it happened very quickly. [Lauren being declared cancer-free] was a relief, a blessing from God, because neuroblastoma is a cancer that is very rare, and hardly ever is it cured. But we were just delighted and so happy to have Lauren here to celebrate now."