Jessica Turri is a beautiful example of everything doctors and researchers at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital have accomplished, and the work that still needs to be done. The Memphis native was just nine years old when she began her inspirational battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Fourteen years later, she's cancer free -- but not without consequences.

Jessica and her younger sister Jordan sat down with Taste of Country to talk about the day doctors at a local children's hospital discovered Jessica had ALL. Both are now graduates of Middle Tennessee State University. Both now work for St. Jude as event marketing representatives.

“When I just heard the words," Jessica, an eternally smiling brunette, says, "it was just like my whole world slowed down and everything was in slow motion. I knew that …. life as I knew it was just changing forever.”

This was 1999, and the two girls had already watched their dad battle cancer. His fight provided some courage, but the family was still nervous about the two years of chemotherapy facing Jessica.

“We went to bed that night and my mom and Jessica and I slept together," Jordan says, now admitting her embarrassment before Jessica insists she has nothing to apologize for. "I was like, ‘Is Jessica gonna die?’”

By now, you know the St. Jude experience is unique, but at age nine -- when she would have much rather have been going to drama club or gymnastics -- Jessica only knew what she'd experienced at her local hospital. That meant several "terrible" bone marrow aspirations because the cancer cells were so impacted doctors couldn't get anything out with a syringe.

Jessica Turri
Courtesy of Jessica Turri

At St. Jude, doctors said they needed to do another one. Jessica panicked and begged her mom to get them to change their minds.

“I woke up from the procedure and my mom was crying tears of joy because St. Jude had used full anesthetic … because they don’t care about the cost," Jessica says. "And if there is a procedure that is going to make a patient uncomfortable, then they’re going to do whatever it takes."

Prior to Jessica's stay at St. Jude, the girls and their family were very familiar with the Memphis-based, internationally recognized medical campus. They remember driving over the bridge to see the gold dome where founder Danny Thomas is buried. Soon, they found that what they heard for years matched the reality. "I mean, the doctors and the nurses became our family and I was so excited to go receive chemo every week," Jessica says.

“I honestly think that cancer is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she adds.

Those statements are counter-intuitive, to say the least. And it's not say she didn't experience many, many low points during her two years of treatment, some that still linger today. Fellow patients -- friends that she leaned on for inspiration -- didn't always find happy endings.

“There was a specific time when I was supposed to finish chemo on the same day as a friend, Scott," Jessica details. "And I made it, and he died about two weeks before our date. I’d done 125 weeks of chemotherapy and I was at like week 123 and I just told my mom I can’t do it anymore. I’m done."

Family and the staff at St. Jude helped pull her through.

Jessica was actually good friends with Suzie Pavlat, an 11-year-old who died from cancer that you may have read about earlier. Those that made it, the survivors, have remained close despite living several states (or even continents) away. Jessica embraces the lifelong friends she'll still visit with from time to time. The "ex-cancer club" jokes about "chemo brain."

"It’s funny because we all joke that we’re all ADD and have trouble focusing because of one drug that they put in our spinal taps procedures, and it affects the front part of your brain," Jessica shares.

“She’s like, ‘I’m not good at math,’" Jordan adds, smiling with Jessica. "I think she blames a lot of stuff on it, and I’m like, ‘You probably just wouldn’t have been good at math anyway.’ She’s like, ‘It’s the chemo.’”

While she's been cancer free for 13 years (March 20 is her 14 year anniversary), Jessica isn't through with treatment. The post-cancer care is a less publicized, but still very important part of what St. Jude does. Due to receiving chemotherapy at such a young age, Jessica has battled side effects, like a recently diagnosed auto-immune disease. A few years ago, she had open heart surgery. She worries the side effects will prevent her from having children.

I’d done 125 weeks of chemotherapy and I was at like week 123 and I just told my mom I can’t do it anymore. I’m done.

“My new drug … it was kind of making my hair, it was starting to fall out," Jessica says. "And I kind of freaked out because it took me back.”

Like many kids who go through the Memphis hospital, Jessica is part of a life study that will help doctors shape treatment in the years to come. They've been able to reduce side effects or even take some types of chemotherapy out of use. Doctors can speak with authority and some accuracy now about what life will look like after the cancer has been defeated.

Of course, curing cancers is the ultimate goal, but managing care is equally important to patients like Jessica Turri. “It’s shaped everything about who I am today,” she adds with a bittersweet smile.

Working at St. Jude was almost destiny -- at the very least, it was something she thought about often during those long chemo sessions. Her experience is not unique, and in fact, a surprising number of former patients come back to work in the outreach or research departments. Jessica is in charge of promotional events around Tennessee, but that doesn't mean she remains a safe distance away from the children. She's a beacon of light for little girls struggling with losing their hair.

“The only thing I can do now is be like ‘See all this hair? It really grows back,’” she tells them. Asked if she'd ever purposely chop her long locks, she gives the impression that she'd rather lose an arm. There will be no pixie cuts for this girl.

Today (March 6) and Friday, Taste of Country is pressing pause on coverage in an effort to raise money for St. Jude. For 25 years, country radio, artists and record labels have helped raise more than $500 million, ensuring that no one ever pays a dime for treatment at St. Jude.

“No child should die in the dawn of life,” founder Danny Thomas once said. Help make that wish a reality by making a donation or becoming a Partner in Hope when you click the button below. Donations can be made by phone at 800-411-9898.

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