TODAY | November 22, 2012
>>> back now with our special series thanks and giving, highlighting the work of st. jude 's children research hospital. and we'll introduce you to a talented young lady who has faced adversity and is still dancing. jenna bush hager has the extraordinary story.
>> reporter: as far back as 19-year-old hillary can remember, she's loved to dance.
>> it's all about rhythm and music.
>> reporter: she's won several national competitions.
>> you get to hoot and holler while you do it. i like to make a lot of noise with my feet.
>> reporter: now a chemistry major in her sophomore year at louisiana college , it's difficult to believe that hillary has spent most of the last five years battling cancer. symptoms came on quickly. when she was only 14.
>> my brain and my body weren't cooperating with each other and i noticed increasing amounts of bruises on my legs. and i remember the girls being like, what's wrong with your legs?
>> as her condition worsened, her parents insisted she go to the emergency room , she was diagnosed with leukemia.
>> i remember being in denial like this isn't really happening. growing up when you hear cancer, you hear you're possibly going to die and that went through my head, as well.
>> reporter: hillary was referred to st. jude 's children research hospital.
>> hillary had the common standard risk of leukemia.
>> patients like hillary are encouraged to continue with their lives while undergoing treatment.
>> while she was getting therapy, she was traveling around the country doing shows with her team. even though she had some side effects , that didn't ever stop her.
>> i decided it wasn't going to take any more of my life than it had to.
>> after 2 1/2 years, doctors said hillary was cured. she graduated high school with a 4.0 gpa and was named valedictorian. yet just after starting college, she once again became ill.
>> i settled in and i started feeling short of breath. is this freshman 15, me getting out of shape? it was supposed to happen and the more it progressed. i was like, okay, i'm getting sick.
>> a local hospital discovered a mass, and while attempting a biopsy, she stopped breathing, she was airlifted back to st. jude .
>> as soon as i got to st. jude , they said we don't know if she's going to make it through the night.
>> she was in the icu for almost a whole week on the breathing machine and we've never seen a case like this. completely two different cancers.
>> this is hillary 's tumor before treatment.
>> it was the size, it was pressing on the heart and the airway.
>> and a few months later.
>> i can barely see it and now it's gone.
>> another year of chemo is still ahead of her, yet she's back in college hopeful and pursuing her passion.
>> how important has dance been through this whole process?
>> almost therapeutic. in my head, i'm going, i want to dance again so i better get up and stretch and try to walk so i can get back to what i want to do.
>> if you could dance anywhere with anyone, who would it be?
>> oh, man. probably the rockettes . i didn't grow tall enough to really chase that, i'm only 5'4", you need to be 5'8".
>> if i grow 4 inches, i can be a rockette, i can try for it.
>> reporter: her first visit to new york just last week.
>> here it is.
>> reporter: turned into a surprise dream come true for hillary .
>> your name.
>> reporter: you're going to go in and do what you always wanted to do and that's be with the rockettes . it'll be fun.
>> with the help of the garden of dreams foundation, not only did hillary meet the rockettes , they invited her to learn part of their routine.
>> i'm so excited.
>> reporter: and then danced with them on the great stage of radio city music hall .
>> what was it like dancing with the rockettes ?
>> i don't think it's sunk in yet. it was amazing.
>> reporter: a once-in-a-lifetime tlhrill for a dancer given a new hope for tomorrow. for "today," nbc news.
>> hillary did amazing. good morning to you.
>> good morning.
>> st. jude celebrating 50 years. now in that time, have you all been able to keep track all of the patients over the years? how many lives have been saved?
>> well, we do keep track of all of them because we have an after completion therapy program and we want to know how they're doing all the time. but we have about 7,800 active patients, 250 we see a day. but it's almost impossible to calculate because we send our doctors to china, south america , latin america , the mideast, we have these websites where doctors can be talking to us, asking questions. we give about, i think, 250 consultations a week. and they're for free, which is unusual for doctors. and then we have another website where the doctors can talk to our doctors. so we're just so spread out that millions and millions of children.
>> i know you have a lot to be thankful for.
>> i'll tell you what i'm really thankful for is that the "today" show is getting the word out so that parents, moms, and dads everywhere know there is a place to go. so many people write me and say i saw this on the "today" show and i think my son has that same brain cancer . and that's what this is -- why it's so important.
>> well, we've always loved our partnership with you. thanks and giving. have a wonderful thanksgiving.
>> you too.
>> with your family.