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Mother, son battle same cancer decades apart

Jake and Jill StubbsJill and Jake Stuebs of Almond, Wisconsin have faith.

Faith that God and physician expertise will help their family beat cancer a second time.

Jill was treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at Marshfield Clinic in the 1970s. Her family’s faith, she said, gave her the strength to undergo treatments and make the long trips from Ironwood, Michigan to Marshfield with her parents.

Nearly 40 years later, she has entrusted Clinic providers with the treatment of her 14-year-old son, Jake, for the same condition.

History repeats itself

In 1972, when Jill was 7, her parents took her to their family doctor in Ironwood for what they thought was measles. She ended up in Marshfield with a diagnosis that changed her life in more ways than she could have expected.

After blood tests and exams, Jill’s parents were called by Dr. H. James Nickerson’s office to discuss her diagnosis – leukemia.

“My dad said, ‘The person who has this is my daughter, and you can tell her what’s wrong,’ and Dr. Nickerson did,” Jill said.

Four decades later, she found herself seeking the same honesty for her own child.

Leukemia diagnosis a second time

Jill brought Jake to an urgent care center in Stevens Point on Jan. 23, 2015 for what she suspected was mononucleosis, a virus that causes symptoms like fatigue, fever and swollen lymph nodes.

Jake hoped the appointment would be done quickly – he needed to get on a bus to attend a Blue Man Group performance he’d worked hard to earn.

The trip didn’t happen for Jake. After two rounds of blood tests, the urgent care doctor said he had bad news.

“I told them to give it to me straight,” Jake said.

“The doctor said my son has leukemia.” Jill said, tearing up at the memory but gathering her composure upon recalling what her son said next. “I cried, but Jake said, ‘If you cry, I cry. God’s got our back. We’ll be fine.”

Both Jill and Jake’s treatment team have been straightforward with him since the day he was diagnosed, just as he asked.

“I’ve told Jake all about my treatment and he’s free to ask anything,” Jill said.

Medical advances in cancer care

Sharing stories about her cancer treatment in the 1970s reminds Jill how much things have changed in 40 years.

“Now, PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) lines and ports are used (to deliver chemotherapy),” she said. “Children getting these procedures don’t have to go through what I went through, getting IVs every week.”

She recalled getting chemotherapy through IVs in her hands and feet because scar tissue made it hard to access other veins, and spinal taps were so painful she couldn’t get out of bed the next day.

While she’s grateful for her care and confident she was getting the best treatment available at the time, she’s glad medical advances have made treatment easier for her son.

Jake takes few pills at home compared to what Jill had to take. And he hasn’t had to undergo radiation, which was standard 40 years ago for children who had leukemia.

Jill expects her son will have fewer long-term side effects than she has experienced, if any at all.

“They make things safer for kids now.” she said. “Now we know that methotrexate can damage the kidneys. When they give it to my son, they monitor his urine and blood, and they won’t release him until they know his levels are safe to make sure his kidneys aren’t damaged.”

Good service continues

What hasn’t changed in 40 years, according to Jill, is how well Marshfield Clinic staff has treated her family.

“I loved my doctor and my nurse,” she said. She got to know them well after receiving cancer treatment for five years at Marshfield Clinic.

After Jill moved to central Wisconsin and had her own children, she brought them to Dr. Nickerson before he retired in 2002.

Wendy Zopfi, the medical assistant Jill calls “Nurse Wendy”, still works in the Pediatrics Department and occasionally stops in during Jake’s treatments to see how he and his mom are doing.

“You see your patients so often, so you get to know them so well that you become friends. They start to ask about your family,” said Wendy, who occasionally stops to see how Jake and Jill are doing during Jake’s appointments. “It makes you feel good that they remember you and want to see you.”

As for Jake, “Marshfield Clinic has been treating me awesome,” he said.

“There is no fear when it comes to his treatment,” Jill said.

Donate to Marshfield Clinic Peds Oncology.

Raise awareness

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, learn about childhood cancers in America and get valuable resources for your family or a loved one.

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