A few weeks ago, I got to meet a remarkable young woman in Victoria named Jessica. The totality of the experience (meeting Jessica, talking with her family, making photographs and writing the story with Caty) was one of those truly formative growing experiences that makes you a better person and a better photojournalist as well. It’s really hard for me to put into words the weight of it all because it was by far the most emotionally difficult stories I’ve worked on and it was really hard to wrap my head around the guilt I felt for feeling so saddened by the injustice of Jessica’s reality, when I would move on and feel better, and Jessica will be left to continue battling this every day.
I want to share the photographs I made and the story that I wrote with Caty Hirst, one of the Advocate’s finest young reporters. I also want to proudly share that the response we got from the community when the story ran was overwhelming. We even had a reader write us to ask how her and her husband might be able to help Jessica’s family with their medical expenses.
At the end of the day, that’s why I’m in photojournalism — to tell stories that inspire compassion in our communities and move people to action. If my work leads people to care a bit more about their neighbors, then what else can I ask for?
VICTORIA TEEN BATTLING RARE CANCER GETS ‘ONE GOOD NIGHT’.
BY ANDREA WISE AND CATY HIRST - AWISE@VICAD.COM AND CHIRST@VICAD.COM
The 16-year-old East High School junior likes to be outside with her family - hunting, fishing, four-wheeling and working on cars.
She is a tomboy, her mom says.
But she can’t do any of it anymore.
"I sit down or lie down - be lazy. I don’t have enough energy to do anything, but when I do, I like to help my dad when he is outside," Jessica Villarreal said.
Jessica has been battling a rare cancer since the fifth grade.
Dr. Chris Johnson, head of the Driscoll Children’s Hospital Cancer & Blood Disorders Center in Corpus Christi, explained the difficulty of treating Jessica’s cancer, neuroendocrine carcinoma, which affects her hormone system.
"There is no standard treatment for it, so we have treated her like an adult. … There are reports of less than 20 cases in pediatrics. … Not enough kids have ever had it to know how to treat it," Johnson said.
Since she was diagnosed, Jessica has been through four surgeries, several types of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She also has experienced many side effects from the cancer and treatments, such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, extreme weight gain and weight loss and the teen is now premenopausal.
"And she is tired," mother Veronica Villarreal said. "She has days where she doesn’t want to do anything anymore. She doesn’t want to take the medicine anymore, but I asked her to try it this last time for us. I told her if it doesn’t work this time, she can stop because I know she is doing it for us."
Her family, in an effort to make her comfortable, recently moved to the east side of town so she could have her own room and not have to share with any of her five siblings.
The new room, however, also means moving to a new school.
"I don’t want to go to school or anything any more. It’s pointless. I can’t learn because I can’t remember," she said.
Her mom said many of the medicines she takes affect her ability to learn and focus. It is also hard on her friendships.
"I call or text them and they write back and then after a while they don’t write back anymore and then they’ll have a reason why they can’t come ov
er here,” Jessica said. “I try to invite friends, but I make new friends and they come over, but I don’t know if they are going to do the same thing as my old friends.”
Jessica said she is hopeful about her new friendships from East, especially after an unforgettable homecoming on Oct. 13.
Area organizations teamed up to give Jessica a day of luxury. Chauffeured in a limousine, the usual tomboy got her hair dyed blue and nails painted to match. A pink fire truck and pink police cruiser from the Guardians of the Ribbon announced her arrival at the dance with lights and sirens.
Pat Stuart, a Guardians of the Ribbon volunteer and Inez volunteer firefighter, said, “Go around talk to any one of these guys and they’ll tell you the same thing. You know, we go out on the scene every day, people get killed in car wrecks and stuff like that, but that’s part of the job. But this, this is tough to handle.”
Despite the emotional event, Stuart said he wanted to give Jessica hope in that “one good night.”
Jessica said the next day after a sleepover with a friend that the night was everything she wanted.
"When I went to the dance, that is when everyone was all there and I freaked out because it was a lot of people. … I felt like they got jealous," Jessica said. "I felt so special that day. I was excited."
Although she is still hopeful, Jessica learned Friday the medicine she is taking is not working.
"The prognosis is not good as far as her long-term survival," her doctor said. "We have searched the literature and consulted with other oncologists around the country, and at this point there are no other drugs that are known to be effective against this type of cancer."
Johnson did not say how much time Jessica has left.
"She can’t tell us how much time she has because that is only in God’s time. They tell us it could be months, and I said don’t give me months, give me years," Villarreal said, breaking into tears.
Though Jessica does not know how much time she has left, she said she is not going through any more treatments. She is tired of always being tired.
"I want to get it out of the way and make sure it goes away, but I know it probably isn’t going to happen," Jessica said. "I think positive, I always think positive. I just have to enjoy life as much as I can."
(PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREA WISE)