JOLIET – During the final six months of Allison’s Cieslak’s brain cancer battle, PBS filmed a documentary, “Children’s Hospital Profiles,” at what is now the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
At one point during the filming, Allison, who loved jewelry and often made her own from pony beads, turned to her oncologist and said, “You should buy me a ruby diamond ring,” said Allison’s mother, Cheryl Henker of Joliet.
When the documentary aired, a woman in Alaska saw it and bought it for Allison, Henker said.
Allison died New Year’s Day 2013. Henker has decided it’s time to pass that blessing forward. To that end, Henker has created packets of unique jewelry – some vintage, some handcrafted.
Those packets also contain a chemotherapy log book, Allison’s story, instructions to keep one piece of jewelry and share another, and Henker’s contact information, in case parents of children with cancer wish to talk.
Henker has just one problem. She doesn’t know how to get these packets to the parents who most need them – the ones watching their children battle a disease without boundaries, she said. Having been there, Henker knows the power of kindness from a stranger.
“It can brighten your day,” Henker said.
Several days ago, Henker gained an ally in her quest when Sandy Gerrettie of Joliet, who lost her husband Joe to cancer in 2013, invited Henker to a backyard balloon release party in Joe’s memory. The two women met when Gerrettie owned the former Healing and Wellness Center in Joliet.
Henker couldn’t attend the release, but she told Gerrettie about her project. Gerrettie offered to take some of the jewelry packets and contact places that treat pediatric cancer patients. Gerrettie feels the jewelry distribution is also good for Henker, just as Gerrettie believes the balloon release will help her.
“It motivates us to get out of our sadness,” Gerrettie said. “I have great friends, but people get busy and fall away. We need something to do. Giving back to other people who are struggling can help. There are a lot of people out there who are alone.”
Allison, Henker said, was smart, funny and strong-willed, all traits that helped her deal with brain cancer. When other kids might cry and stomp at challenging procedures, Allison just dealt with it, Henker added.
The six-year cancer roller-coaster ride began when Allison was 6 years old and started tripping. Then she complained about the “dizzies” in her head. Henker, thinking “ear infection,” brought Allison to her pediatrician. The pediatrician ruled out the ear infection and sent Allison for an immediate MRI.
Henker said they waited 10 hours for one to be available. She realized the news was bad when she saw a doctor waiting for them after the test. Henker heard “malignant” and “brain tumor.” An ambulance immediately whisked them away to the former Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago (now the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago).
“When things move fast, you know you’re in trouble,” Henker said “We got there at 1:30 in the morning and by 8:30 they had her in surgery. I told her, ‘They found out what’s causing the dizzies and they’re going to remove them.’ And then she said, ‘OK.’ ”
From there, Henker said life became one awful round of emergency department visits, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, routine MRIs that found cancer in her spine, a stem cell transplant and experimental treatments. The treaments last, while not saving Allison’s life, extended it.
“We got two good years out of it,” Henker said
All this originated from an egg-sized tumor that surgeons removed in that initial 10-hour confident they had all the cancer, predicting only a 5 percent chance of recurrence, Henker said.
Treatments left Allison so weak, Henker had to carry her in and out of the hospital, she said. Blood counts would dip low and Allison would return to the hospital with infections. On New Year’s Eve 2002, Allison developed a severe headache and died the next day, Henker said.
Henker knows what it’s like to balance work, family time and cancer care; learn unfamiliar medical terms; keep track of the many tests, medications and treatments; and watch cancer drain one’s wallet, despite Henker being a financial adviser.
Allison’s older sister, Lindsey Cieslak was just 10 years old when Allison became sick, Henker said. It was not uncommon for Henker to find someone to stay with Allison, rush from Chicago to one of Lindsey’s activities and then rush back to Chicago.
“Maybe my experiences could alleviate a little bit of something for somebody,” Henker said. “I’ve been there. I understand.”
For information, contact Henker at firstname.lastname@example.org.