47: Close to Home

47: Close to Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Close to Home

I have found that if you love life, life will love you back.

~Arthur Rubinstein

For six years, Bob and Nancy Mills celebrated their favorite week of the year—the week of the FedEx St. Jude Classic—with a house full of friends and clients. Overlooking the Tournament Players Club at Southwind’s eighteenth hole, the Mills’ home was a hotbed of activity for this family of golf-lovers who’d participated in the tournament for fifteen years.

But a week after the 1997 Classic, Nancy Mills walked out her back door not to join a party but to capture a quiet moment alone as she grappled with a parent’s worst nightmare. Doctors had told the Mills earlier that day that their five-year-old daughter, Ali, had cancer. Incredulous, Nancy stared at the tournament’s scoreboard across the lake that now read “The St. Jude Kids Say Thanks” and realized that Ali was now one of those children. The tournament the Mills had loved and been involved in for years was now to affect their lives in a larger way than they ever imagined—by benefiting their Ali.

During the tournament the week before, Ali’s leg had begun to ache, and she lost her appetite and grew very pale. Nancy instinctively knew something was amiss, and she was right: Ali’s bloodwork looked wrong and the doctor could feel something in her abdomen. She was sent to St. Jude, and by that afternoon the Mills family knew they were dealing with cancer. A grueling series of tests the next day confirmed Ali had a very rare and potentially deadly solid tumor called neuroblastoma. The tumor stretched from her abdomen to her neck, and had already spread to her bone marrow, the most advanced stage of the disease. The Mills were completely shocked.

“I thought, ‘How did I miss this?’” Nancy says. “We were just numb. We couldn’t think. You know there are bad things that can happen to your children, but I never thought of cancer. There’s no history of cancer in our family at all. For the first week, I couldn’t even say the word ‘cancer.’”

St. Jude doctors moved fast to begin treating Ali because her condition was so serious. She began chemotherapy treatments the same night as her battery of tests and the diagnosis. Groggy from sedation to get her through the tests, Ali awoke the morning of July 4th in the hospital and learned she had cancer.

“She was very quiet—which isn’t like Ali,” Nancy says. “We told her she had a tumor and were very up front with her. She took it all very well. Even though she had just gotten her hair long, she was okay when it started falling out from the chemo. On her second treatment, she pulled it out and saved it in a plastic bag to give to the birds to use in their nests.”

The Mills lived through tough days as Ali’s doctors at St. Jude Hospital attempted to put her cancer into remission so she could have a bone marrow transplant—her only hope for a cure. Despite a year of various high-powered chemotherapy treatments and a surgery to remove the primary tumor, however, the cancer remained in Ali’s bone marrow. At last, though, the Mills family received the wonderful news that for the first time Ali’s bone marrow was free from cancer.

Ali had her bone marrow harvested the week of the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

“It’s so hard to watch your child go through this, to know it’s life-threatening,” Nancy says. “You don’t want to see them suffer, miss out on things, be stared at. We try to keep life normal.”

Bravely soldiering through her treatments, Ali emerged from them with few outer signs of illness other than her bald head. A popular, bubbly presence at St. Jude, she entertains her nurses and doctors with songs and pranks. “She hasn’t let her trials get her down,” Nancy says.

In March, Ali went to see The Lion King on Broadway in New York. Her chemotherapy-induced baldness attracted the attention of another child in front of her. She heard the little girl say, “He doesn’t have any hair!” Ali tapped her and told her, “A) I’m a SHE, B) it’s called cancer, and C) it’s the drugs.” Then she leaned her smooth head toward the girl and said kindly, “Do you want to feel it?”

This is Ali’s true spirit. She is known for bringing the St. Jude staff to tears with her favorite song, which says, “God doesn’t see the same way people see. People see the outside of a person, but God looks at the heart.”

It’s Ali’s beautiful, courageous heart that gives significance to the FedEx St. Jude Classic. This isn’t lost on the Mills family, whose devotion to the tournament is ironically helping save their daughter’s life.

~Bob Phillips
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul

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