It's called "sweet 16" for a reason; it's the prime time of life, that carefree age where getting a driver's license, playing sports, taking chemistry quizzes and hanging out with friends is the only real concern a girl should have. But for Sullivan Central High School student and basketball player, Jessica McMurray, 16 has been anything but typical and easygoing.
On June 20, 2011, her life and that of her family's changed forever. With symptoms of nausea and vomiting having begun to disrupt her daily life, Jessica McMurray underwent a CT scan to evaluate her brain function. As she and her mother, Cindy, traveled home from the doctor's office, they even joked, "at least she had a brain" (since they had seen it on the screen) - unaware of the news that awaited them.
A phone call from her primary care physician that evening confirmed the seriousness of the situation: Jessica had a tumor. The doctor urged Cindy McMurray to rush her daughter to Holston Valley Medical Center saying, "don't hit any bumps and don't pass go."
After three hours in the HVMC emergency room a pediatric doctor confirmed their worst nightmare, the tumor looked cancerous. Within another hour, without much time to grasp the news much less pack, the two found themselves in the back of an ambulance headed to the East Tennessee Children's Hospital (ETCH) in Knoxville. We had the "clothes on our back," Cindy McMurray recalled.
With the severity of her condition recognized, doctors put her on steroids to reduce swelling and wasted no time in removing the tumor. Jessica remembers how quickly the chain of events surrounding her experience transpired, "they found [the tumor]on the 20th and I had surgery on the 27th," she said.
Nicknamed "beast" for her unquestionable strength, the spirited young McMurray came out of the ICU in two days rather than two weeks; she then went home from the hospital in one week instead of the anticipated six.
Following surgery, a neurosurgeon at the children's hospital diagnosed the avocado-sized tumor in Jessica's brain as medulloblastoma, a Stage IV cancer of the brain. Specifically affecting the center part of the cerebellum that controls balance and motor skills, medulloblastoma is the most malignant central nervous system tumor in children; 500 cases are diagnosed in the U.S. every year and it makes up 15 to 20 percent of all pediatric brain tumors.
Jessica went through six weeks of radiation from July to September 2011 at the Thompson Cancer Survival Center, staying with her mother at the fellowship center for radiation patients. With one month off from treatments, she then underwent nine rounds of chemotherapy based over four- to six-week periods (her last was on Oct. 19, 2012).
During her treatments, she met two fellow cancer patients who have played important and supportive roles in her journey; 8-year-old Joseph and her married friend, Sally. Inspiring and motivating one another to "make the best of every day," Jessica's newfound friends have helped her see a purpose behind the cancer.
"There was a reason it happened," she said.
"It opened our eyes to cancer," her mother added. "There are hundreds of types of cancer" - each with its own color and month of recognition (gray is for brain cancer and gold is for childhood cancer).
Faced with the concept of mortality at such a young age, Jessica is mature beyond her years, understanding all too well that cancer doesn't discriminate; it is ageless, affecting infants, children and adults. She is a walking testament to the fact that it can strike anyone, even a young athlete.
Jessica McMurray's desire is to be a spokesperson for childhood cancer, raising awareness so that others may understand as she puts it that, "kids get affected by it too and miss out on things they should be doing."
Jessica McMurray is a miracle ambassador at ETCH in Knoxville and plans to attend Milligan College to become a childlife specialist, helping children who are going through the same battle as she is remain positive.
During her struggle, the Dream Connection in Knoxville allowed her to realize her other dreams: feeding the polar bears at the Alaska Zoo and spending the day with the Lady Vols' basketball team.
Due for a scan in February, the tough, young Blountville native is currently cancer-free and hopes to soon return to her lifelong passion: basketball.
With the support of family (her cousin Mckenzie who keeps track of her counts and her mother and father), her "amazingly understanding" oncologist, Dr. Susan Spiller, and the weekly help of a physical therapist, Jessica is determined to "play one minute of one game" during her junior year.
Jessica wants others to know "not to give up," adding appropriately that "you never know which game's your last."
Cancer may have sidelined Jessica McMurray for now, but it hasn't taken her out of the game. Not by a long shot.