WALKER -- The pain wouldn’t go away.
It started in her right lower thigh and steadily moved up her body — a sharp, constant pain that kept Hailey Lejeune up every night during the summer of 2016.
She’d wince every time she felt the throbbing in her leg. She’d cry. Sometimes, she’d scream.
“I was constantly hurting,” said Lejeune, who was 11 at the time. “Like screaming hurting.”
Initially, doctors told Lejeune and her family that the pain was from muscle tightness or perhaps growing pains. This led to several trips to the physical therapist’s office over that summer, when therapists hoped stretching, exercises, or rounds of dry needling and electrodes would help.
The summer eventually ended, and Lejeune was beginning her sixth-grade year at Westside Junior High, but the pain persisted. One day as she was getting off the bus, her leg gave out, leading to another trip to the doctor’s office as the pain intensified from the fall.
After an X-ray, Lejeune got the news: Her torment wasn’t from growing pains - it was from cancer.
“It was terrifying,” Lejeune said of getting the diagnosis.
Doctors discovered a “grapefruit-sized” tumor in Lejeune’s right leg, which eventually landed her in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, a frantic time for her and her family. Because of treatment, Lejeune was unable to attend school her entire sixth-grade year. At times, Lejeune felt like she was dying.
Three years later — and after 14 rounds of chemotherapy and eight weeks of radiation — Hailey is your typical 14-year-old. She’s on the soccer team, plays the clarinet in the band, likes wearing cute shoes, and is having fun “being a teenager and enjoying life,” her mother Dawn said.
After a harrowing diagnosis three years ago, Lejeune is still standing.
And during the St. Jude Walk/Run Marathon in downtown Baton Rouge, her teammates stood with her.
‘We’ll do whatever they need’
On a muggy Saturday morning, with several hundred people gathered in front of the Louisiana State Capitol, Hailey met nearly a dozen of her Walker High School soccer teammates and coaches in front of the stage.
Wearing their green WHS soccer T-shirts, they held signs that read, “Let’s end childhood cancer together,” “We love St. Jude,” and “We Walk for #teamhaileybug” before taking part in the mile-long run.
Having her team’s support meant more than they could possibly know, Hailey said.
“I’m very glad I can have a team like this to support me,” she said. “It really does help.”
This is the third year Hailey has walked in the marathon, one of several St. Jude benefits she and her family participates in, her mother said.
Last year, Hailey was allowed to pick the winners of the “St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway.” She also does “a lot” of media interviews, and her mother shares her story “at any event they ask of us.”
“St. Jude has given hope for our daughter to enjoy high school now and be a normal kid,” Dawn said. “If it wasn’t for St. Jude, we wouldn’t be able to do that.
“I can never financially repay St. Jude for what they did, ever. So doing stuff like interviews, the marathon, the dream home giveaway — this is our way of giving back to St. Jude for saving our daughter. We’ll do whatever they need, because they were there when we needed them most.”
‘I felt like I was dying’
Dawn can still remember the date — Sept. 17, 2016, a Saturday — when she and Hailey went to Our Lady of the Lake in Walker after her daughter’s fall off the bus. After an X-ray, doctors discovered a lesion and transferred Hailey to the Lake in Baton Rouge.
It was there that doctors located a tumor in Hailey’s right hip, near the pelvic area, and told her she’d need to go to St. Jude “immediately.” Terrified, Hailey and her mother made the 360-mile drive to Memphis, where they learned the full extent of Hailey’s health issues.
Doctors diagnosed Hailey with Ewing sarcoma, a cancerous tumor that grows in the bones or in the tissue around bones, often the legs, pelvis, ribs, arms or spine. Ewing sarcoma — which typically occurs in children and young adults — can spread to the lungs, bones and bone marrow if not treated.
Dawn couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“I definitely didn’t think cancer or a tumor by any means,” she said. “We just thought she doesn’t wear good shoes because she liked wearing cute sandals, so maybe that was [why she was in pain]. Never in a million years thought cancer.”
A few days after the diagnosis, Hailey had her first round of chemotherapy. After a two-week stay at St. Jude, Hailey was allowed to continue her treatment at the Lake in Baton Rouge, where things got worse before they got better.
Hailey described the chemotherapy as “the worst part” of the entire ordeal. Doctors inserted an IV port in her chest, and before pumping the chemo in her body, she’d take medicine to help combat the extreme nausea she knew was coming.
It never helped.
“Sometimes, I felt like I was dying,” she said. “Smelling the chemo, I would throw up. Getting up, I would throw up. I just stayed sick, so it was very tough.”
Hailey went back to St. Jude for radiation, but what was supposed to be an eight-week stay turned into nearly three months. Hailey’s parents, who both worked, would rotate weeks in Memphis with their daughter so she wouldn’t be alone.
Hailey doesn’t know if she could’ve done it without them at her side.
“They kept me from having tears in my eyes,” she said. “It just gave me a lot of happiness when they were there. If it wouldn’t have been for my family, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through it.”
Still, the experience took a mental toll on Hailey, who had to see a psychiatrist to work through the emotions she was constantly facing.
“There were a lot of times when she was in the hospital getting her chemo that she felt like she couldn’t do it anymore,” Dawn recalled. “She wanted to go home and wanted to give up sometimes. I had to find words to encourage her and tell her it was gonna be okay.
“It was tough as a mom. So tough.”
‘Are you serious’
Relief finally came in July 2017, when Hailey and Dawn went back to Memphis to get more tests. When a patient is declared “cancer-free,” St. Jude staff members throw confetti and sing a special “No Mo’ Chemo” song.
And on this summer day, they were coming to sing for Hailey. Actually, they wound up singing it twice.
“They didn’t tell me ahead of time,” Dawn recalled with a laugh. “They came in to sing the song, but I told them to wait so I could grab my phone and record it. So they went back out the door and came back in and sang it again.”
Hailey sat in disbelief.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” she recalled. “I cried.”
Though she is cancer-free, Hailey still has to return to St. Jude for regular checkups. Right now, she goes every six months. Eventually, it’ll be once a year, and then once every five years.
Hailey could get her checkups in Baton Rouge, but she and her family prefer to go back to St. Jude. After all, that’s where her life was saved.
“I wouldn’t be here without St. Jude,” Hailey said.