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Carroll family fights cancer together

Tammy Carver, left, sits with daughter Juliana, center, and husband John, at their family home in Manchester.
Tammy Carver, left, sits with daughter Juliana, center, and husband John, at their family home in Manchester. (Photo by Lois Szymanski)

Juliana Carver of Manchester had just turned 5 years old when she came into her parents' bedroom to complain about a bump under her arm. That defining moment was the start of a tumultuous journey for her and her family.

"I'm not a giver-upper. Whining is for babies," Juliana, now 13 years old, said.

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Her tough philosophy has served her well. Over the years she has lost her hair three times, had multiple rounds of radiation, 10 different kinds of chemotherapy, 93 blood transfusions, and she currently has her sixth port in place.

Juliana's parents adopted her from Belarus, a small country between Russia and Poland, when she was 20 months old. She is their sixth adopted child. In March 2007, that lump she found under her arm was diagnosed as stage 3, group III alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma — cancer.

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"Trying to explain to a 5-year-old that she has cancer is not easy," Juliana's mom, Tammy Carver said.

Juliana Carver poses for a picture with Maddie, her dog, at the family home in Manchester.
Juliana Carver poses for a picture with Maddie, her dog, at the family home in Manchester. (Photo by Lois Szymanski)

While Tammy stayed with their daughter at the hospital, Juliana's dad, John Carver, was facing more hardship. His employer had downsized, causing him to lose his job.

"We had just built our house," John said, adding that he was making $132,000 a year at that time.

Within a year and a half, that income would significantly drop.

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"We haven't bounced back since," he said. "The extra medications Juliana is on cost hundreds of dollars a month that insurance doesn't pay for."

Juliana bravely endured 42 weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation, the latter of which resulted in her developing radiation burns under her arm.

"They were terrible," Tammy said. "It looked like the worst sunburn you've ever seen, open and oozing, and it lasted months."

After Juliana's treatment, the family was sure they were done with cancer.

"We had a big party when she was finished — an end-of-chemo party," Tammy said.

Then in March 2011, Juliana told her mom she had a bruise on her leg.

"[Our kids] do home-school gym and she'd been hit by a soccer ball so we thought it was just a bruise," Tammy said.

But it didn't go away. The "bruise" was actually a lump in Juliana's groin — another tumor.

"It was like a punch in the gut," John said.

Twelve rounds of chemotherapy and five more weeks of radiation followed.

Juliana was only off of treatment for four months when her cancer returned in June 2012.

"We were at my uncle's graveside funeral and she had this horrible [abdominal] pain," Tammy said. "It was so bad she almost passed out. I ended up having to carry her back into the church."

Tammy called Juliana's oncologist. She was already scheduled for a routine chest MRI. Tammy begged for a script for more scans and got it. That evening, a phone call brought bad news. There were two tumors — one in the lower back and one that was pressing against the vena cava, a primary vein in her chest. The family was told to pack and get to the hospital immediately.

Juliana had inpatient chemotherapy and radiation. This time around, she was given ICE chemotherapy, which is three types of chemo — Ifosfamide, Carboplatin and Etoposide — combined into one treatment.

Tammy said the ICE chemotherapy was the most difficult treatment Juliana had endured to that point.

"Even though it was bad, it worked," Tammy said. "It shrunk that tumor in three weeks."

"We were scared out of our minds," John said. "We didn't know what the future was going to hold."

So he asked Juliana, "If there were three things you could have what would they be?"

Juliana's answer was: 1 — Not to have cancer; 2 — A billion dollars; 3 — A puppy.

"Six kids is a lot and a puppy is just another responsibility," John said. "But we started doing our homework."

She wanted a little dog and the family decided on a Shih Tzu. They found one online at the York County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They called but it was already gone.

"We told them what we wanted and why we wanted it," Tammy said.

Society representatives promised to call if another one came in. Two days later, the Carvers got a call. The shelter had a Shih Tzu.

Juliana was discharged from the hospital with a pump to administer fluids. The family drove straight from the hospital to the SPCA facility. Tammy flushed Juliana's lines and disconnected everything from the pump so she could go inside.

Tammy said they were expecting a 1-year-old, but the dog ended up being a 5-month-old puppy. Adding housebreaking a puppy to their lives was not the plan, but Juliana was smitten, so the puppy named Maddie came home.

"I love her a lot," Juliana said. "The doctors let her come to the hospital with me."

Juliana remained on maintenance chemotherapy, but relapsed seven months later.

"I actually caught it that time," John said. "I take a lot of photographs of the kids, and I had noticed her eyelid was getting lower and lower."

They returned to Sinai Hospital's oncology department and were told to see an eye doctor.

Tammy called their ophthalmologist and was able to get an appointment right away.

"Their office is only about two miles from the hospital so we drove right over," she said.

The ophthalmologist discovered that it was another tumor, and sent the family back to Sinai to see a specialist there.

"I was freaking out," Juliana said. "I didn't know why things were happening so fast."

Surgery performed the next day got all of the tumor, but none of the margins. Tammy said that would have destroyed the muscle.

It has been almost a year since that surgery and Juliana is still in remission. She gets a lot of cards and sometimes gifts in the mail because of her dad's social media presence. He blogs, has a YouTube channel and a Facebook page, which is called Angels for Juliana.

"I do it because I want to get people to pray," John said. "I've shared her story around the world since she first got sick. Over 1.2 million people have viewed her videos. Over 6,000 have liked her Facebook page, Angels for Juliana. We are trying to get that up to a million so we hope people will go 'like' her page."

Tammy said when Juliana is hospitalized, she stays with her while John cares for their five other children. He works in the insurance industry from home now, writes nonfiction books, and is also a pastor at Faith Outreach Chapel in Baltimore City.

"We've learned that just a small amount of money raised for research is to help find cures for kids' cancers," John said. "So I am on the board of a couple of organizations who are trying to get that word out, to raise funds for juvenile cancer research."

The family also participates in numerous blood drives and John serves on the board of the Red Cross of the Greater Chesapeake Region. He said he knows about the importance of Red Cross because of Juliana's multiple blood and platelets transfusions.

"When her hemoglobin gets below eight or when her platelets get below 15,000 she needs a transfusion," Tammy said. "When she needs platelets, she gets nosebleeds and her teeth bleed. It would get so bad that she'd get bruises inside her mouth just from chewing."

Juliana said that when she needs a transfusion, she feels lethargic and lacks energy.

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"It feels like you've been running for an hour," she said. "You feel exhausted."

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Juliana gets extra vitamins and enzymes and Tammy has started "mistletoe therapy" — homeopathic shots that help build the immune system and supply more energy. Juliana continues to take maintenance chemotherapy in an attempt to keep the cancer from returning.

John said he advises other families struggling with cancer to be willing to lean on friends, family and those willing to lend a shoulder.

"Don't try to handle this journey alone," he said. "It is a terrifying path. Reach out online to other families who have dealt with cancer. Get your story out and ask people to constantly pray for you ... Keep the story in front of people all the time. I have over 400 videos of Juliana online so they can see a face with the disease and question other people about what is working for them and be open to other treatments."

Juliana said she lives her life no differently than the average kid.

"I like to cook and I like to draw," she said. "I want to be a chef or an artist, or an artistic chef."

No stranger to the idea of fighting, Juliana said offered a word of hope to other children struggling with cancer.

"It is hard but you will get through it eventually," she said. "If I can get through it, anyone can."

The Carvers said other parents of cancer children should feel free to contact them at johncarver@wildblue.net.

Those who wish to help them with medical expenses can visit http://www.gofundme.com/ajs690.



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