BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The life of a college student is often filled with arrogance. They are living on their own. They have life by the horns and feel invincible. But for members of the Bemidji State University women’s ice hockey team, those ideals were shattered in the time it took one doctor to utter a single word—cancer. The diagnosis caused members of the team to gather around a family to comfort, support and do everything they can to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to anyone else.
May 28, 2012, Ben and Jenelle Kelley welcomed Lilah to the world. She was a happy, healthy baby and according to her parents and aunt Jenessa Philipczyk, they knew from the moment she was born that she was a special girl with great strength.
Philipczyk, a sophomore forward for the BSU women’s hockey team, lived with her sister and her family last summer. Her 14-month-old niece Lilah was the center of attention in the home.
“She is a very happy little girl,” said Philipczyk. “She wakes up at the crack of dawn and she is running around playing in her little kitchen. I’ve never seen a little girl so active.”
In May, those close to Lilah began to notice that her breathing was “noisy.” They mentioned it to their family doctor, but didn’t think much of it. Over the next six weeks, Lilah’s breathing became progressively worse. Several different doctors saw her, but each reassured them that there was nothing to worry about. However, her parents knew that something wasn’t right. A referral set the family up with a pediatric otolaryngologist at Children’s Hospital of Minnesota. A July 23 CT scan reviled that Lilah’s airway was compressed and that a large mass had taken over the left side of her chest.
“We didn’t know if it was cancer,” said Philipczyk. “But when they took a biopsy and found that it was stage four neuroblastoma, that was heart-breaking.”
Neuroblastoma is a rare form of cancer of the sympathetic nervous system. Each year about 700 new cases are diagnosed in young children and infants in the United States. The cause is unknown, but physicians believe that it is an accidental growth that occurs during development of the sympathetic nervous system.
July 26, Lilah began three days of chemotherapy. After two weeks in the hospital, she returned home and has since had three rounds of treatment. The tumor is no longer compressing her airway and repeat bone marrow biopsies have been negative, indicating her cancer is responding to the chemotherapy.
“She is doing a clinical trial at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital,” said Philipczyk. “They are doing five rounds of chemo with two really intense drugs.” She added, “They are planning to do surgery in November to remove as much as they can.”
Carrying this burden has been not easy. When a child has cancer, everyone is affected at a very deep level. Philipczyk’s closest friends—her teammates—knew something was wrong.
“I saw that Jenessa was affected by it,” said senior captain Alex Ehlert. “Even though she wasn’t verbal, you could just tell.”
For the past several years the BSU women’s hockey team, not unlike many of the other athletic programs on campus, has played a game each year to raise awareness about cancer. That gave Ehlert an idea. She spoke with her coaches and then wrote a letter to BSU’s Athletic Director Tracy Dill asking for permission for the team to play for Lilah.
These plans have come to fruition. This weekend the team will use gold tape on their sticks and socks and gold ribbon stickers will adorn their helmets in support of pediatric cancer. The team has dubbed Saturday’s game versus Robert Morris “Love for Lilah.” In addition to raising awareness, the team will be selling bears with all proceeds directed to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.
“When I told Jenessa our plan, she said ‘I can’t believe you want to do this,’” commented Ehlert. “I told her, ‘This is your family and we are teammates, so your family is our family.’”
According to Ehlert, it took very little effort to get the rest of the team on board.
“Everybody has been very positive and really want to help out. We think it’s a great idea to help someone else.”
“Knowing Jenessa and Lilah makes this more personal,” said Ehlert. “It’s easily relatable for us and makes us very passionate about what we are doing.”
To say that the outpouring of support for her family has overwhelmed Philipczyk is an understatement.
“It’s really awesome,” said Philipczyk. “I can’t believe how much support the team has given me. I never would have imagined they would do this for me.”
“The last few months have really changed my perspective on life and how I look at everything,” Philipczyk commented. “I am so grateful for my life, the team and Lilah.”
“It makes you realize how lucky we are to be healthy,” said Ehlert.