Sparkling with a confidence that takes many people years to achieve, nine-year-old Jémilia Contant-Dias is a force to be reckoned with. A bubbly and spirited girl with a heart of gold, she loves her friends and family with a radiant fierceness. The youngest of four, Jémilia has always known the warm embrace of a supportive circle – an important lifeline during a medical journey that would come to test their strength and resiliency.
On November 13, 2019, just four days before her 7th birthday, Jémilia’s teacher noticed something a bit odd. Just underneath Jémilia’s jawline sat a protruding lump and although it didn’t cause her any pain, her family wanted to check it out, just to be safe. A little over a week later, Jémilia headed to CHEO, and a biopsy of the lump was ordered. Besides some dizziness and a leg ache that could have been attributed to growing pains, Jémilia felt fine and her bloodwork showed no signs of malaise. Doctors thought that Jem may have a blocked saliva gland, or perhaps a bacterial infection, but when the results from the biopsy came back, they lead CHEO teams down an unexpected path. November 29 became a day that Carolyne, Jémilia’s mom, will never forget: the day that her baby was diagnosed with B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
Because her bloodwork was excellent, Jémilia was able to go home and prepare to be admitted to CHEO. Ever the social butterfly, she even got to participate in her Girl Scouts’ overnight weekend before arriving at CHEO’s 4North to start her chemotherapy treatments. Jémilia quickly learned that although CHEO’s food service was top-notch, she was there to get better and some days would be harder than others. Once her chemotherapy treatments started, Jémilia experienced symptoms of nausea, hair loss and body pain, but she continued to push through and kept her spirits up with the help of her family, friends and community.
As the winter months continued into 2020, Jémilia was discharged and going to CHEO multiple times per week for chemotherapy treatments. It was difficult to settle into the reality of an oncology diagnosis, but Jem and her family were continuing to adjust as best they could, until Jémilia found herself in the grips of an anaphylactic allergic reaction.
Pegaspargase is a drug commonly used in the treatment of ALL and one that had been administered to Jem twice before that fateful day. After arriving at CHEO and settling in, Carolyne headed to get something to eat before Jémilia’s chemotherapy treatment began. Mother’s intuition brought her back to the room just as they started the IV drip. Within 15 minutes Jémilia began to feel that something was wrong and when Carolyne looked at her daughter, she saw that almost every part of her body had turned beet red – even the whites of her eyes. CHEO nurses immediately disconnected Jémilia’s IV and called a “Code Blue” so that the crash cart would be nearby if needed. As they placed an oxygen mask over an unresponsive Jémilia and administered two rounds of Epinephrine, Carolyne held her daughter’s hand tightly and encouraged her to take deep breaths. Because Jem’s heart rate had dropped so drastically, Carolyne relied on the comfort of her daughter’s strong squeeze to let her know that she was going to be okay.
After her allergic reaction, Jémilia’s treatment plan had to be adjusted. To make up for the one dose of intravenous Pegaspargase that she couldn’t have, she had to have a total of six injections (three back-to-back) of a different drug, Cytarabine, over the course of two weeks. It wasn’t ideal, but Jémilia took it in stride, never complaining and always looking forward.
Throughout her stay at CHEO, chemotherapy treatments and maintenance phase, Jémilia’s family has always made a point to keep living and enjoying life as much as they can. “Life is so precious, and you just never know,” says Carolyne, confident that all the joyous moments have helped to keep Jem from having lasting memories of her cancer journey. These days Jémilia is back in school and a wizard at technology. As she dances around her purple room, full of energy and excitement, the vibrant hue of the walls matches her perfectly: colourful, beautiful and bright.