Ellie Wilcox was 17 when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was the fall of her senior year at Kenowa Hills High School in Grand Rapids. Her life was a whirl of activities with student council, sports, and friends. And then it came to an abrupt stop. “I didn't have the stamina to keep up with it all of a sudden. I was experiencing bloody noses and random bruising,” Wilcox said. What initially looked like mononucleosis proved to be more serious after bloodwork results came back. Her pediatrician immediately sent her to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where her leukemia was diagnosed. “It's one of those moments in life that kind of stops you in your tracks,” said Wilcox, 39.
High school moments lost
She had the most common form of leukemia but was considered high risk because she was older than most who are diagnosed with the disease. As a result, she was put on a clinical trial chemotherapy regimen, which meant higher dosages for longer periods. She had weekly chemo treatments for three years.
Ellie Wilcox was diagnosed with leukemia at 17. All her plans for her last year of high school fell away. She never went to prom and missed other special senior year traditions. “I never went back to class, so I missed most of the activities that you look forward to in your senior year,” she said. “I had to do a homebound program because my immune system was weak, and I was very susceptible to illnesses. I would go to school twice a week and meet in an office with one teacher. Sometimes I'd be able to wear a mask and go to lunch with my friends, but very rarely.” The treatment that was saving her life made her body unrecognizable. Her weight increased dramatically because of the high-dosage steroid regimen, and the chemo caused her hair to fall out. “It was very tough,” Wilcox said. “My friends were great, but they were also moving on with their lives, too. It was a very hard time emotionally and physically.”
Make-A-Wish ‘such a reward’
Ellie Wilcox with her family on her Make-A-Wish trip. Because Wilcox was diagnosed with cancer before she was 18, she qualified for a Make-A-Wish. The nonprofit granted her wish to take her family to the island of Maui in Hawaii. That trip in March 2002 remains a special memory. “We went sailing. We tried surfing. We did whale watching and drove the Road to Hana. It was very special. I remember I didn't feel like a cancer patient on my wish, I felt really important. It was such a reward after going through such a tough time,” she said. “It gave us an opportunity to create some new memories outside of the hospital. The wish was cool for me because I got to control something, and during my cancer journey, there was so much out of my control. With my wish, I was able to just focus on something different and look forward to it.”
Blue Cross with her for whole journey
Her family celebrated the end of her treatment with a Cure Party. She remembers her mother adding up all her medical expenses before insurance, which topped more than $1 million.
Ellie Wilcox with her husband and daughters. “My treatment wouldn’t have been possible without Blue Cross,” said Wilcox, who remains a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan member. “They're helping me manage long-term side effects that I'm dealing with,” she said. “Some are more severe than others. I've got avascular necrosis in my hips, so I’ll probably need a hip replacement sooner than later.” Oct. 27 will mark her 22nd year since being diagnosed. While cancer hasn’t returned since she completed her treatment, the regimen of drugs took its toll on her body. She didn’t know if she would have a chance to be a mom, but she and her husband, Travis, are parents to two daughters, Quinn, 6, and Harper, 1. “I remember sitting in my hospital room wondering if my dream of being a mom would happen, and now I have two beautiful daughters,” Wilcox said.
Experience prompted career change
After completing her treatment, Wilcox attended Grand Rapids Community College, then went on to Western Michigan University, where she earned her teaching degree and later a graduate degree. Wilcox credits her Make-A-Wish experience for putting her on a rewarding career path. “When I was sitting in my student teaching, I had an epiphany that I didn't want to be a teacher anymore. I came home and said, ‘I want to work for a nonprofit like one that helped me on my journey.’ Make-A-Wish was front of mind,” she said. After college, she interned for nonprofits and began volunteering with Make-A-Wish Michigan, which led to a job. Since joining in 2010, she has taken on different roles. Wilcox started as a development manager overseeing the Walk for Wishes and Wish Ball. She then moved into working as a major gift officer. This spring, she was promoted to regional managing director of leadership giving for the organization’s Grand Rapids office. Looking back on her experience with cancer diagnosis and treatment, she has advice for people who want to support others going through a similar experience: to truly help, you have to stay in it for the long haul. Support poured in over the initial months after the diagnosis, she said, but dissipated over time. “I can count on my two hands the people who really stuck with me through those three years,” she said. “Those treatments are grueling. Having the support of people who care about you really meant a lot. “I had a couple of really good friends who are still my best friends to this day. They didn't treat me any differently. They still asked me to do things and talked about things outside of my cancer and treatments. Especially for teenagers and kids, at a certain point, your identity isn't that you're a cancer patient. You want to have as much normalcy as possible.”
- Blue Cross Employees Log Hundreds of Miles to Help Wish Kids
- Are We Making Progress on Childhood Cancers?
- National Donor Day: Michigan Child Benefits From Bone Marrow Registry in Unexpected Fashion
Photo credit: Ellie Wilcox