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Long Journey: No more chemo for Brainerd teen

Jaimie Senger (left), a 17-year-old senior at Brainerd High School, discusses her and her family’s experience with her leukemia diagnosis, along with 12-year-old brother Jared Senger and mother Carolyn Reller. More than two years after learning of her cancer, she underwent her final treatment Friday and is now considered “cancer-free.” Chelsey Perkins/chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com

Brainerd High School senior Jaimie Senger is the treasurer of the American Sign Language club. She is a self-described "reading fanatic," a fan of snowmobiling, a giver of hugs and a collector of autumn leaves.

"This year, they are so vibrant and pretty," she said. "I could just stare at them for hours, they are just so pretty."

Jaimie Senger is also a survivor. Diagnosed with leukemia at 14, Jaimie underwent one final procedure Friday, marking the end of more than two years of health scares, doctor's visits, countless hours on the road, stress and uncertainty. On Wednesday, she will take her final pills and then, it's official - Jaimie's cancer-free.

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  • Celebrate "No More Chemo" for Jaimie Senger
  • 1-4 p.m. Sunday at the Brainerd American Legion
  • Cake and refreshments will be served.

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"We've been really lucky," said Carolyn Reller, Jaimie's mom. "You hear about kids that have relapse and start all over again, and I can't even imagine what those families have to go through, twice."

It will be five years before Jaimie is considered cured, but for now, she is celebrating a new beginning.

Jaimie is among an average of 160 children under 15 in Minnesota each year diagnosed with cancer, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). The American Cancer Society estimates 10,450 new cases of childhood cancer will occur in 2014. Every year, one in every 408 children in the United States is diagnosed with cancer.

Survival rates among children with cancer have improved dramatically in recent years, reports MDH, and nationally, mortality rates among child patients dropped 53 percent between 1975 and 2007. With leukemia, children have a five-year relative survival rate of 84 percent.

Still, approximately one-quarter of all children with cancer will not survive the disease.

September is designated as National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month to put a spotlight on what thousands of children and their families continue to face each day and to raise funds to support further research.

Although survival rates have improved, the causes of most childhood cancers remain unknown. Until there are more answers, kids will continue to receive the same news Jaimie did in June 2012.

That spring, Jaimie became sick with whooping cough. After a blood draw revealed some abnormalities, doctors thought Jaimie was infected with ehrlichiosis, a bacterial disease transmitted by ticks. She was prescribed a 10-day antibiotic regimen but did not feel better after she'd finished the medication. She couldn't eat, she said, and lost 15 pounds in two weeks.

"She was really exhausted all the time," Reller said. "We thought she would get better from the antibiotics that they gave her for the woodtick disease that she never really had. She just never got better from that. So I kept taking her into the doctor and I said, 'She needs more blood tests, because something is not right.'"

Jaimie returned to the doctor a day before a planned trip to North Dakota to visit relatives. She would need to travel to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, her doctor said, for further blood tests. That same day, the family made the trip, and after an excruciating withdrawal of bone marrow for testing, it was not long before a diagnosis.

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September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

• There will be approximately 10,500 new cases of childhood cancer in the United States in 2014 and 1,350 deaths.

• One of every 390 children in Minnesota will receive a cancer diagnosis before age 15.

• Childhood cancer is 20 percent more common in boys than girls.

• Acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for 26 percent of all diagnoses. Brain and central nervous system cancers account for 21 percent.

• An estimated 379,112 survivors of childhood and adolescent cancer were alive in the United States as of 2010.

Statistics from the American Cancer Society and the Minnesota Department of Health.

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Jaimie does not remember the moment doctors told her she had leukemia.

"I was pumped up on pain meds," she said.

The leukemia cells were so compacted in Jaimie's hip, doctors had to go in and out of her bone several times to collect marrow.

"It was so bad, 89 percent of her bone marrow was leukemia," Reller said. "It was so painful afterwards for her, she could hardly walk for three days."

Soon, Jaimie began chemotherapy, the side effects of which left her very unhappy.

"I didn't care about the cancer, I cared about my hair," she said. "I always had short hair, so now it was all long and pretty. That's what upset me the most."

Despite her disappointment, Jaimie agreed to get her hair cut, so when it did fall out, it wouldn't be quite as traumatic. When, months later, she cut it all off, her stepfather Grant Reller allowed Jaimie to shave his head in solidarity.

Jaimie became part of a trial which required her to remain at the hospital for seven hours per day, five days in a row, receiving chemotherapy from a backpack of fluids. The trial, which tested three types of chemotherapy, said Reller, came to a halt when some children contracted infections due to low cell counts.

Jaimie developed an infection and was hospitalized for five weeks.

"During that time, her doctor got a letter that said there were like, three other kids in the same study that came down with a similar infection, and one of them died," Reller said.

"I was depressed for awhile there," Jaimie said. "It was pretty bad, because I was in the hospital for five weeks. You know, I want to go home, I want to lay in my own bed, I want to see my dog, I want to see my family ... I want to see my friends."

Jaimie missed the first month of school while recovering from the infection, but after her release, she told her mom she wanted to go to school again.

"I went to school for four days," Jaimie said. "It just didn't work out. I was just so tired, and I had a lot of headaches."

She missed the first semester of her sophomore year before returning for two classes and an online class the second half.

Throughout the first year following her diagnosis, she and her family drove to the Twin Cities each week for chemotherapy, sometimes for the entire week.

When Jaimie had an allergic reaction to two medications she was prescribed, the alternative was for her to travel to St. Cloud weekly for shots.

Throughout Jaimie's ordeal, she and her family could count on Jaimie's grandmother, Beverly White, friends, other family and members of their church, Lord of Life Lutheran in Baxter, to help when needed. They organized a benefit, watched her younger brother Jared, gave her rides to treatments and prayed for her on Sundays.

"People took care of our dog," Reller said. "My friend came over and cleaned our house."

At first, Jaimie had difficulty talking about her cancer.

"She wanted to crawl in a hole and pretend she didn't have it," Reller said. "She didn't want people to think of her differently."

Jaimie received support from other teens with similar diagnoses through attending Camp Mak-A-Dream in Missoula, Mont, for two summers.

"We could just sit there and talk for like hours, about what happened and stuff," she said. "I think it made me kind of happy, so I could relate to other kids. They knew exactly what I went through, some of the kids had the exact same kind of cancer I did."

Now, she's happy to talk to others about her experiences.

"It sucked at the time, but now I have this story I can tell people," Jaimie said. "I can support other kids who have had leukemia or even grown-ups. I can tell them my story. I think it's made me a better person."

Despite her optimism, the seriousness of Jaimie's situation was not lost on her. Shortly after she and her family celebrated her final chemotherapy session last week, they learned a friend from camp died from brain cancer.

"It's just so sad, you know, how many kids are affected and how many people don't realize," Reller said. "No kid should have to go through that."

Reller said she plans to turn the trauma they've experienced into helping others facing similar circumstances.

"Hopefully someday, I can be a mentor to another mom or dad that might be in a situation where their child has cancer and be helpful in some way," she said. "I'm going to figure out how to pay back, somehow, for all the people who have been generous to us and cared about us. I'm just not sure what that is yet, or how I'm going to do it, but I will do it."

As for Jaimie, the 17-year-old is planning for her future. If all goes well, she will graduate high school on time and is aiming to attend Central Lakes College next year to pursue sign language and horticulture. She loves working with children, she said, and hopes to build a career in special education.

"When you're sick or dying, you have a different perspective on life," she said. "A lot of people were there for me, so I try to make other people's days, I guess. I try to give more ... I hold doors, I try to do whatever I can. I try not to get cranky. I try to be happy. You want to enjoy life. You want to live."

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

(218) 855-5874
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