Community rallies around local girl

More than 330 dozen tamales were prepared and sold on Feb. 23 at the Manistee VFW Walsh Post No. 4499 as a fundraiser to benefit 11-year-old Graeleigh Jensen, who has a rare liver cancer. (Courtesy photo)

MANISTEE — Berdelia Vasquez has quickly learned over the past couple months how much cancer can affect an entire family. However, thanks to family, friends and the community, she knows she isn’t alone.

About a year and a half ago, Vasquez could tell something was off with her 11-year-old daughter Graeleigh Jensen. It started with low energy level, and after blood work it was found that Graeleigh’s thyroid levels were off.

“We were pursuing her thyroid condition, getting that under control. We thought she was doing better and seemed better,” said Vasquez. “She sees a doctor at the U of M (hospital) for her thyroid. But her thyroid, even though they kept increasing it, her numbers weren’t getting better.”

Then the fifth grader at Kennedy Elementary started having stomach aches. At first sporadically, then more frequently to the point that Vasquez had to pick Graeleigh up from school a few days a week.

Graeleigh Jensen, a fifth grader at Kennedy Elementary School, was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer in mid-January. Last week she began treatment at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. (Courtesy photo)

“I basically got frustrated. I got frustrated and we were at the doctor in November, did a full physical,” said Vasquez. “On Jan. 14, I took her back in and said, ‘There’s something more going on, she’s coming home all the time. These belly aches are just chronically coming now.’

After another physical, an ultrasound and a KUB (abdominal X-ray) doctors found a mass on Graeleigh’s liver. She was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer, Fibrolamellar Hepatocellular Carcinoma in mid-January.

“It landed us at Mott’s Children’s Hospital and then from Mott’s it took us to Rush University in Chicago where she ended up having a liver resection. They removed a 3 pound tumor and took 40 percent of her liver,” said Vasquez.

“We had a slight hiccup when she developed a clot around her port and that landed us in DeVos (Feb. 18-20). Now we’re home thankfully.”

Graeleigh said she was most scared when she had the tumor removed, which was a six-hour long surgery.

“When I came out, they said it was good. So the tumor was probably the scariest part,” she said. “Then after that, I didn’t have as much stomach aches and I felt a lot better. I healed up pretty well, and I’m doing a lot better now. I don’t have stomach aches as much. Pretty much I don’t have them at all any more.”

She is also glad to be eating more again and gaining weight.

“The tumor took up her whole right quadrant and pushed the healthy tissue into the stomach which compressed the stomach down so she wasn’t feeling hungry like she should be, like a growing 11-year-old girl,” said Vasquez. “She didn’t want to grow, before that she was the same height and struggled to put on weight.”

On Thursday, Graeleigh returned to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to start chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments.

“For about eight days, we’ll be inpatient for our first round of chemo and immunotherapy. Our hopes are that eventually she’ll be up to do most of it at home, but taking us back to DeVos like one or two days every week still,” said Vasquez.

The treatment is a bit experimental because it’s been used in older patients with Fibrolamellar, but Graeleigh is young to have this type of cancer, said Vasquez.

“It usually does not happen, they usually do not see it in children Graeleigh’s age at all. On top of being rare altogether it’s even more so in children her age. We’re hoping that it will have a good outcome like

On Feb. 23, family, friends and community members helped with a tamale fundraiser at the Manistee VFW Walsh Post No. 4499 to benefit Graeleigh Jensen, who was diagnosed with Fibrolamellar Hepatocellular Carcinoma in January. (Courtesy photo)

it’s had a good outcome in older (children) – when I say older, I mean 18, 19, 20 and older,” said Vasquez. “They’ve seen promising results in that; so we’re hoping we’ll get the same with Graeleigh. They’ve kind of reassured us that one thing is that she’s so young and children seem to be resilient and they bounce back. We’re hoping that’s the case in this case. Unfortunately, this is an aggressive form of cancer and usually there’s a really high re-occurrence rate.”

Graeleigh admitted she felt a little nervous about the treatment because it’s the first time.

“I don’t really know how it’s going to be. But I’m really hopeful that they work,” she said. “They kind of explained it, how they’re going to do it and what it will do and what the side effects are. So I know what might happen and what it could not do. So I know what’s coming up.”

Throughout everything, Vasquez said the support from her family, friends and community has been amazing.

“We have a great village and the community has been awesome,” she said. “For me, sometimes I just feel out of it, I just feel like I’m in survival mode. So to have people that can pick up and go for me, to support us.”

She said family and friends have been helping out by bringing meals to her family and giving her other children rides when needed. Vasquez has four other children, Bryson, Tatum, Micah and Sawyer ranging from high school age to 6 months old. Vasquez’s partner Mark helps her keep things together at home. Graeleigh’s dad lives near Washington D.C.

Vasquez said the past several months have been tough on the whole family, and that she’s barely been home for a week during that time.

“Everybody is giving up something right now in the family or going without something; it’s just life right now. I tell them we gotta come together as a team. We have to make things work. Life is not always going to go how you planned it and there’s going to be bumps sometimes and you have to learn to go along with it.”

Family, friends and even people unrelated to the Vasquez family have rallied around them to raise money to help with medical and travel expenses. In February, a fundraiser was held at Pizza Hut, which Vasquez said was the biggest turnout ever.

“People sent us pictures of all the cars and people inside and how absolutely chaotic it was. It’s just amazing to see everybody come together like that,” she said.

On Feb. 23, members of the Vasquez family, friends and other volunteers prepared a tamale sale in which 330 dozen tamales were sold.

“I’m just so grateful; I wish I could just tell everybody face-to-face how grateful I am,” said Vasquez. “This outpouring of love is just amazing. Thank you to the VFW for helping out with the fundraisers and Pizza Hut for all they’ve done.”

Another fundraiser is scheduled for March 30 at the Manistee VFW Walsh Post No. 4499, located at 1211 28th St. in Manistee. The spaghetti dinner fundraiser will include a raffle, 50/50, merchandise, kid’s board game night, and a Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament. Donations go to Graeleigh for medical expenses. Contact Alvin Rischel at (231) 690-7568.

Anyone who would like to make a donation can do so by searching for Graeleigh Jensen at gofundme.com, directly to Berdelia Vasquez at Filer Credit Union’s main branch on 28th Street in Manistee or by mail to P.O. Box 333, Manistee, MI 49660.

Vasquez said everyone is welcome to also send Graeleigh letters or cards to help keep her spirits up.

“She has her moments but she is a trooper. She’s in good spirits about it,” said Vasquez. “I think she sees our family and our friends and our co-workers and our community coming together and rallying for her, and I think that just lifts her up that much more. She really is just a nice girl; she’s just such an old, kind spirit. She’s a little fighter.”

avatar

Posted by Michelle Graves

Michelle is the managing editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach her at (231) 398-3106 or mgraves@pioneergroup.com.

Leave a Reply