Northwestern Wisconsin girl with rare form of cancer shares community's generosityAlannah Gillis enjoyed riding her bike, reading “Junie B. Jones” books and playing with her baby brother. But on Aug. 3, the 7-year-old from Webster, Wis., received news that changed her life but hasn’t broken her spirit.
By: Katie Wielgos, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Alannah Gillis enjoyed riding her bike, reading “Junie B. Jones” books and playing with her baby brother. But on Aug. 3, the 7-year-old from Webster, Wis., received news that changed her life but hasn’t broken her spirit.
Her mother, Angie Peterson, had taken her daughter to two doctors who diagnosed the problem as a bladder infection and anemia. Peterson knew something more was wrong when her usually active child chose to sit on the couch playing Wii instead of jumping on her trampoline.
Peterson decided to speak with another doctor in her hometown of Webster. “‘Mom-to-mom, I need to know what’s going on,’” she said to Dr. Leah Jacobs, of the Ingalls Clinic, on Aug. 1.
Jacobs had the diagnosis two days later. It was something her parents didn’t expect — a cancer they never even had heard of.
Alannah had neuroblastoma, a cancer typically found in and around the adrenal glands. This cancer is rare in children older than 5.
“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” Peterson said.
Though Peterson said there “wasn’t a dry eye for a month,” among the family, Alannah was the one who stayed positive.
“‘It’s going to be OK; we’re going to get through this,’ ” Peterson said, echoing her daughter.
After the diagnosis, Alannah’s treatment began at Children’s Hospital of Minnesota. Peterson and Alannah’s father, Steve Gillis, had no car and used Alannah’s grandmother’s car.
Allanah’s grandmother, Sherry Gillis, told the news to her boss Jason Hansen, owner of Zia Louisa’s Italian Restaurant in Webster. He immediately turned to Elmer “Jay” Emery for help planning a benefit to pay part of Alannah’s medical expenses. Emery met with his colleagues on the Tribal Council of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin and managers from three St. Croix casinos to arrange a two-part benefit.
The casino part of the fundraiser lasted 19 days, giving part of the money raised from food and beverage sales to Alannah. Emery said the casinos’ goal was to raise $10,000.
They raised $87,236.
A Sept. 22 benefit at Zia Louisa’s raised about $98,000, bringing the total from both fundraisers to more than $185,000.
“It was wonderful to see all of us, Native and non-Native, work together for a common cause,” Emery said in a statement, “because when you get down to it, we are all one.” Peterson was shocked by the turnout.
“I didn’t know 90 percent of the people at the benefit,” she said, “so it was pretty touching and amazing to have all those people there.” Sherry Gillis thought the benefit would raise only about $6,000 so Alannah’s parents could get a cheap car. “But it just kind of snowballed and got huge,” she said.
Alannah wanted to do some giving of her own, so she donated $17,700 back to the Children and Families Fund of the St. Croix Tribe. The donation helped fund two Christmas parties for more than 600 St. Croix tribal children.
Alannah wasn’t done yet. She found out the Star Studio — a TV show made in the hospital — lacked toys to give as prizes to the kids. She didn’t hesitate to give the $2,000 raised from the bracelets the family sold that say, “God doesn’t give me what I can’t handle.” Alannah had surgery Nov. 30 to remove her right cancerous adrenal gland and has had five chemotherapy treatments. Her last treatment will be Wednesday, allowing her to be home for Christmas.
Alannah is healing and feeling pretty good, her grandmother said. She does, however, have an 8-inch incision from her side to her belly button.
But it will be a while until Alannah is fully recovered and done with treatment. After chemotherapy, she will have at least three weeks of visits to the hospital for radiation, another three weeks of appointments for a stem cell transplant and then six months of antibody injections.
“We never do anything alone,” Peterson said. She said she’s thankful for all the help from her community.
Alannah is grateful, too.
“I have the best family. I just love them so much,” she said.
Donations are being accepted at any U. S. Bank in Wisconsin under the account Benefit for Alannah Gillis. To learn more of Alannah’s story and to track her progress, visit her website at caringbridge.org/visit/alannahgillis.