On April 4, 2011, Julianna Nicholson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She went through chemotherapy treatments over the next year, her hair fell out and she missed school. But now Julianna is cancer-free and is helping spread the word locally about leukemia.
Lingering Flu, Doctors Visits Give Diagnosis
Julianna’s mom, Lori Nicholson remembers her daughter’s flu symptoms from nearly a year ago as “awful.”
“Her fever just wouldn’t break. We thought, this is hitting her really hard, this is awful,” said Nicholson. “The flu symptoms went away and then following week she would vomit every couple of days.”
Nicholson took Julianna to the pediatrician several times and doctors said Julianna had allergies.
“She has allergies, nasal drippage and that’s what’s making her gag. Give her some allergy medicine and she’ll be okay,” said Nicholson.
But Nicholson said her daughter hadn’t had allergies before. The family tried the medicine for a few weeks until things got worse with Julianna.
“She couldn’t eat, she was so weak that she couldn’t stand. She was crying out in pain and she had bruises all over her legs. The next Monday morning I said, 'No, something’s really, really wrong,'” said Nicholson.
And back to the doctors they went.
Diagnosis, a year-long struggle
Nicholson said blood work needed to be done to see what was going on with Julianna’s body.
“That afternoon we got a call saying, ‘You’re being admitted to the hospital,'” said Nicholson. “Julianna received two transfusions that night and had a bone marrow aspirate and leukemia was confirmed."
Julianna went on chemotherapy to target the blood disease; Nicholson recalls it was an extremely tough process on the six-year-old’s body.
“She had really bad side effects. She lost the ability to walk for three weeks. One of the chemo drugs targets the joints and the muscles and that hit her badly. Kids are put on steroids during leukemia treatment and she had negative side effects including blood sugar imbalance, which required insulin shots,” said Nicholson. “We had to prick her little fingers multiple times a day.”
Chemotherapy put a strain on Julianna’s body, but was an overwhelming emotional rollercoaster for the Nicholson family.
“She is very amazing, because through it all she has had a smile on her face and has the best attitude,” said Nicholson of Julianna. “We explained to her very early on that she would lose her hair.”
“It’s okay, Mommy. I’m still going to be me,” said Nicholson.
Julianna received treatment from the Children’s National Medical Center, Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. Nicholson says at the clinic where Julianna was treated there is an art center for kids to draw while they are receiving their chemotherapy; something Julianna loved to do.
Nicholson says her daughter is a trooper and her superhero. Throughout it all, she’s maintained the spunk of a six-year-old.
“We are in a very good place right now. We have started the maintenance,” said Nicholson. “It’s continuing to maintain a cancer-free state, she’ll be on maintenance for two years.”
Julianna receives at-home chemotherapy treatments while also going to school. She returned to the Merit School this January, but it’s a play-it-by-ear situation for how long she will be physically at school while she continues at-home chemo treatment.
Nicholson says Julianna is reading at a third grade level, and is doing well catching up; despite the obstacle of doing cancer treatment while being in school.
Nicholson described Julianna as a “typical little girl” despite her diagnosis. “She loves coloring, painting, making jewelry. You can’t get her away from Littlest Pet Shop.”
How Pennies for Patients works
Julianna is now the face of leukemia locally in Woodbridge. She was chosen by LLS to be the honored student in the area, essentially serving as a spokesperson for leukemia, treatment and recovery.
The National Capital Area Chapter of LLS is running the Pennies for Patients program across 425 Northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. schools that will collect change in honor of local students battling cancer.
School coordinators work with the teachers, students and parents to share Julianna’s story, and teach the importance of giving back and teamwork to help them achieve their goals.
The three-week fundraising program is in its tenth year, and this year 20 Woodbridge-area schools will be participating in the change-collection to raise funds for research, patient services, educational programs and advocacy through LLS.
Nicholson said when LLS asked if Julianna would be the honored student, the family said they’d do anything to help spread the word about the cause.
“Julianna is very upfront and matter-of-fact about her diagnosis with people,” said Nicholson. “We knew that she would be able to get up in front of other students and people to talk about what she has.”
Julianna’s school held its Pennies for Patients program in February, but Fred Lynn Middle School will be starting its drive March 5.
Fred Lynn is an “Elite Pennies School” because they have participated in the program for ten years. The school has raised more than $10,0000 for blood cancer research and patient programs according to LLS.
Schools participating in Pennies for Patients:
- Belmont Elementary School
- C.D. Hylton Senior High School
- Porter Traditional School
- Marumsco Hills Elementary School
- Rippon Middle School
- River Oaks Elementary School
- The Merit School of Prince William
- Woodbridge Middle School
- R. Dean Kilby Elementary School
- Minnieville Elementary School
Starting March 5:
- Fitzgerald Elementary School
- Fred M. Lynn Middle School
- Gar-Field High School
- Kerrydale Elementary School
- Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School
- Occoquan Elementary School
- Penn Elementary School
- Rockledge Elementary School
- Westridge Elementary School
Starting March 12: