Danville girl suffers cancer relapse

DANVILLE – Students and adults alike at Northeast Elementary Magnet School are rallying around the family of a third-grader who is fighting leukemia for a third time.

The news that Jenna McMillin's cancer had returned came late last week – only 1 1/2 weeks after the 8-year-old had returned to school for the first time since leaving in May 2006 to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments and a bone-marrow transplant.

"It just broke my heart," said school secretary Brenda Hamilton, who informed staff on Monday. "They were just devastated. But the first thing they said was, 'What can we do to help?'"

Two fund-raisers already have been planned.

On Friday, Northeast will hold a "Jeans for Jenna" day, where all staff and pupils are encouraged to wear blue jeans. Pupils must still wear their uniform shirt.

In exchange, they must donate $1 or more, if they wish. The proceeds will go to DeAnn and Joel McMillin, Jenna's parents.

All next week, the school will hold a food drive for the McMillins. Staff and pupils are encouraged to bring nonperishable food items to the school.

Hamilton said cash donations, gas cards and restaurant gift certificates are also welcome. "They're going to have to be driving over to the hospital in Champaign a lot," she said.

Jenna was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in February 2003 at age 4. She underwent chemotherapy for 2 1/2 years, and the cancer went into remission. But it returned six months after the treatments stopped.

When Jenna left school last May to begin another round of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Northeast officials organized the first "Jeans for Jenna" day, which they held several times over the following weeks. Students and staff from Northeast and other Danville schools raised several thousand dollars for the girl's medical expenses.

Before Jenna relapsed last year, she had been looking forward to wearing jeans to school to help out another cause, DeAnn McMillin said. "She had her dollar ready," her mother recalled.

But Jenna never made it to school. That morning, she had a doctor's appointment and learned the cancer had returned.

Something similar happened last Thursday. Jenna was looking forward to a class field trip to the Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College that day.

"She never made it," DeAnn McMillin said, adding Jenna learned of her second relapse during a routine doctor's appointment that morning. "She was so excited to go. ... She was so excited to ride the bus."

Despite her daughter's bone marrow transplant in late August, DeAnn McMillin recently suspected something was wrong. Though Jenna returned to school on Feb. 20, after getting her doctor's approval, she began experiencing some of the symptoms she had when she was first diagnosed four years ago.

A bone marrow biopsy confirmed her worst fear, DeAnn McMillin said. Her family had just one question: If the transplant had been so successful, how could the cancer come back?

"They don't know," she said. "They said cancer is really very clever. It will find a place to hide until the chemo goes out of the body, and then it starts all over again. Some kids relapse three and four times. It could be that it's just plain genetics. ... That's something we don't choose to believe.

"The excellent news is that the cancer is not in her brain or her spinal fluid," she continued.

Jenna was admitted to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana on Monday. She will begin yet another round of chemotherapy today.

DeAnn McMillin said doctors have already put a treatment plan into place. They also are researching whether Jenna's 13-year-old sister – Brooke, her donor in August – or 16-year-old brother, Chris, could donate bone marrow, if they choose to go that route again.

DeAnn McMillin said her two older children are having a hard time dealing with their sister's setback. However, Jenna, though crushed at first, is taking it in stride.

"A couple of hours later, she said, 'Mom, it's not too bad,'" DeAnn McMillin recalled. "She said, 'The hospital has a whole new kids' wing. They have flat-screen TVs.'"

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