When five-year-old Morenci, Mich., resident Abby Pierce complained that her bones hurt, her mother Susan chalked it up to growing pains. When the complaints continued, she took her daughter to the family doctor.
It was 2011, and the doctor’s lab work suggested cancer. Two days later, at C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, was confirmed.
“It felt like somebody had picked us up and spun us in the middle of a tornado,” said Susan, a Metamora native. “I instantly just cried. It was devastating. If I could have taken it from her in that instant, I would have.”
So began Abby’s harrowing 2 1/2 year experience with a disease that made her feel sick but that youth wouldn’t allow her to understand. It was a long, difficult path back to health, her mother said, but Abby handled her illness with a grace beyond her years.
“She always did whatever was asked of her. I’m extremely proud of her. She went through an awful lot,” Susan Pierce said.
Now 11, Abby Pierce has been named the 2018 Honorary Junior Chair for the Fulton County Relay for Life event June 8 at the county fairgrounds. Wearing a special T-shirt, she will complete a lap around the Relay for Life track designated especially for cancer survivors.
When she was first diagnosed, however, the medical staff at C.S. Mott’s didn’t waste time. The day after Abby arrived she was fitted with a port in her chest to deliver chemotherapy treatments. Over her two-week stay there the treatments continued.
Then Susan Pierce and her husband, Bill, received good, then particularly surprising news: Abby’s cancer had gone into remission after the first day of treatment, but continued treatment for the next two years and three months was necessary to keep it away.
“My jaw almost hit the ground,” Susan Pierce said. “I didn’t know that was a reality for some people. Here’s this little girl in the prime of her childhood, and she’s in the hospital. I was on a mission to get her through that.”
During that time, the Pierces’ extended family scrubbed their house from top to bottom to keep germs at bay for Abby’s return. Friends and community members tended to the other Pierce children – Abby’s fraternal twin, Chelsea, and their older brother, Wes – in their parents’ absence.
“We’re so fortunate to be from such a great community. They just stepped in,” Susan Pierce said.
Almost daily for the next 2 1/2 years, Abby underwent chemotherapy, orally at home and once or twice weekly at the UM hospital, a 75-mile trip from Morenci.
“We had a saying between us,” Susan Pierce said of Abby. “I said, ‘You can cry and scream as much as you want, but we have to do this.’ She looked at me and she knew I was doing everything I could for her, and she needed to do everything for me she could. She just stayed strong.
“She was scared a little because she saw (fear) in me, but she didn’t understand what was happening to her. She did what she had to do. She was the strongest little girl in the world.”
Abby’s mother described the long course of treatment as “medication and sickness, and trying to figure out what our new normal was, and trying to see the end of two years and three months…I was scared. I tried to put my faith in the doctors, that they truly knew what they were doing, but she was my baby.”
Preschool was missed often during that period, and Christmas, Easter, and Abby’s birthday were spent in a hospital bed. She underwent 23 spinal taps to check for cancer in the fluid, and was admitted to the emergency room with high fevers over two dozen times. On a half-dozen other occasions she was admitted to C.S. Mott’s for at least a week.
Through it all, her father, Bill Pierce, “always made sure we had whatever we needed,” Susan Pierce said.
And, still, Abby fought, maintaining activities and trying to remain upbeat.
“So many times the doctors and nurses would say she was just amazing,” her mother said. “They could not believe she was sick with what she had because of the way she was acting. Through the entire thing, seeing her down and out, feeling absolutely cruddy, (but) maybe five times in that whole two years and three months did I see her (say), ‘I just can’t do it today.’”
Abby remembers most of her ordeal at that young age. “Some things I was scared about,” she said, particularly when doctors poked her with needles. “I just felt very scared at the time, and I really didn’t know what to do about it. It taught me to be brave and just to go through it.”
She said because she was physically fragile family members babied her, making her feel even closer to them.
The setbacks did extend Abby’s cancer treatments three months beyond their scheduled closing, but they finally ended on April 23, 2014. Four years later, she makes twice-yearly visits to the doctor, a preventative measure that will last until she’s 18.
The chemotherapy treatments did have the residual effect of producing learning disabilities in Abby. But while that can become frustrating, she’s a solid A/B student.
“I feel pretty good,” she said. “I can do a lot more things than I used to, but some things I can’t do (yet).”
Susan Pierce said she’s thankful. “I’m very grateful to God that He brought her through all of that and she’s perfect. I never took for granted any of it, (but) I’m totally confident now.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.