Mighty Blog

Ashley’s childhood cancer diagnosis in 1985 inspires her still today

Oct. 14 holds a special place in the hearts of Marcy Anderson and her daughter Ashley. It’s a reminder of their resilience through uncertain times as it was on that date in 1986, that Ashley had her final chemotherapy treatment at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul.

“It is a day we celebrate every year,” described Marcy. “She didn’t have a great prognosis, but here we are today!”

‘Cancer never crossed my mind’

Ashley was only 10 months old when she was diagnosed in 1985 with neuroblastoma – a cancerous tumor that was found in her chest and she had a lump on her neck. The family had traveled nearly 200 miles from Hibbing, Minnesota, to St. Paul where they got the news about Ashley’s diagnosis from Dr. Jack Priest, an oncologist at Children’s Minnesota, who has since retired.

Marcy and Ashley smiling and holding glasses of champagne.

“He said, ‘You’re going to hear something then you’re not going to hear anything else. Your daughter has cancer.’ Cancer never crossed my mind,” remembered Marcy.

The family didn’t know any other children who had cancer. But from the start they felt like Children’s Minnesota was where they needed to be.

Ashley surrounded by Children's Minnesota staff on her last day of chemotherapy in 1986.
Ashley surrounded by Children's Minnesota staff on her last day of chemotherapy in 1986.

Treatment and surgeries

Ashley’s treatment plan called for 18 months of chemotherapy. Marcy remembers having to protect her daughter from other illnesses during this time as the chemo put Ashley at an increased risk for infection – chicken pox could have been deadly to her. This meant she wasn’t able to play much with other kids. The family was overjoyed when Ashley finished chemotherapy. But her cancer journey didn’t end there.

At age 8, she had two surgeries at Children’s Minnesota to remove dead cancer cells that had lumped together around her spine and neck. It was a challenging time for Ashley, but the care team was always there to provide support and comfort.

“I couldn’t say enough about the nurses. Whenever I needed something, they were there,” said Ashley.

Marcy remembers one moment when the nurses went above and beyond to reunite Ashley with the blanket she couldn’t go anywhere without.

“One time the blanket got bundled up in the rest of her hospital bedding. We drove back home to Hibbing and realized we didn’t have it. I called Children’s Minnesota and the nurse, Irene, dug through the laundry and shipped it to us overnight,” said Marcy.

Ashley has the blanket to this day. “When I travel, it’s in my carry-on. My biggest fear is losing it.”

From patient to mom

Ashley continued to go to school between the surgeries when she was 8, which left a visible and painful scar on her back. The scar and her treatment meant she couldn’t go to recess or gym with her classmates, which took an emotional toll. However, once she recovered, the rest of her childhood was rather typical. After a few years, her scar smoothed out and became a reminder of what she had overcome.

Her last long-term follow up appointment was in 2005 when she was 21 years old. The doctor said she probably wouldn’t be able to have children due to the chemotherapy. In the 1980s, fertility preservation for childhood cancer patients was not widely recognized as an important aspect of care as it is today. Even at 21, it was hard for Ashley to hear because she wanted to be a mom one day. But, that was another thing Ashley overcame and today has three kids!

“I have three healthy children all conceived naturally,” said Ashley. “When I hear stories of other little kids facing a challenging diagnosis, I try to send a message if I know them or a family member. Care has come so far. I’m glad there are specific hospitals and doctors that only care for children.”

Marcy, Ashley, Addy, Braylah and Kace
Ashley with her three children and mother, Marcy.

Advances in treatment

Treatment for kids diagnosed with cancer has come a long way since Ashley was a patient. Children’s Minnesota is home to the largest clinical research staff in the Upper Midwest, meaning our patients receive state-of-the-art treatments before they’re widely available. Dr. Jawhar Rawwas is leading work in Children’s Minnesota’s cancer and blood disorders program focused on taking a precision medicine approach to neuroblastoma, the type of tumor Ashley had.

“Neuroblastoma has the ability to spread to different parts of the body and when it does it is difficult to treat. In addition to surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other treatments, we also rely on molecular testing of tumors to determine the best treatment for each individual patient, since not all tumors are the same. With that knowledge, we are utilizing newer medications that were not available 20 years ago,” described Dr. Rawwas.

Forever grateful

Marcy still remembers when she was told that if her daughter reaches her fifth birthday, it would be a big milestone. Ashley turns 40 this year. At the milestones in between, Marcy would update Dr. Priest, sending him photos from Ashley’s graduation and when she had her kids.

“I can’t say enough for the staff. It takes a special person to do what they do,” said Marcy. “We will be forever grateful to Dr. Jack Priest and the staff at Children’s [Minnesota]. Thank you!”

A century of caring for kids

Children’s Minnesota has been here for 100 years. And it’s all because of you: the people who bring your kids here, who work here, who refer patients for specialty treatment, who support our families with donations and who rally around them in the community. Join us in celebrating a century of care — and a bright, healthy future for Minnesota kids.