Beating cancer: Teenager Jennifer McCarter survives a painful ordeal cancer-free

Jul. 28, 2013 @ 10:31 PM

Early in her nearly two-year ordeal, Jennifer McCarter had a dream. Jesus came to her, hugged her and told her everything would be OK. When she awoke, she told her parents and assured them she would be fine.

She is, but to get from there to this point took surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, a stem-cell transplant, lots of pain, days of isolation and a plenty of anxious, troubling times.

McCarter, now 19, was a senior at Pigeon Forge High School in 2011, a cheerleader, good student, lots of friends, but also someone in pain. She remembers them as sporadic pains throughout her body, sometimes in one place, sometimes all over. There were times she could barely get out of bed.

Doctors couldn’t figure it out. She was poked, prodded, tested, subjected to X-rays and CT scans. In December 2011 she passed two kidney stones, and a test of her kidney function showed abnormal blood readings. Doctors suspected cancer,  but reassured her and her family it probably wasn’t.

Then doctors at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital tested her, examining her blood counts and taking tissue from her hip joint. She was hospitalized three days.

McCarter returned to school and in January 2012 was on her way out the door to go home at the end of the day when she saw her family there to get her. All of them. That was unusual. Angie McCarter told Jennifer’s younger sister Janie to go to the car.

“That’s when they told me the doctors found a tumor,” Jennifer recalled. “They thought it was behind my sternum and was about eight inches long. I cried for about 15 minutes.”

Then she gathered her self and calmed down her parents. Yes, she calmed them down.

“I told my dad, “God wouldn’t put anything on me that we can’t handle.’”

Thus began the ordeal. McCarter was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a cancer usually found in very young children. Her doctors said she was the second 18-year-old they had treated with the disease.

No more classes. Her diploma was in jeopardy, not to mention her life. Doctors gave her about a 20 percent chance of survival.

She endured five rounds of chemotherapy, one treatment a month. The chemo was administered at Children’s Hospital. She usually stayed in the hospital five days during the treatment, which lasted about four days. Her hair began to fall out after the first one. Meanwhile her parents, Wayne and Angie, tried to juggle a lot of responsibilities. They own and operate McCarter Printing in Sevierville. Jennifer has an older sister and two younger ones still in school. At least one parent was with her during all hospital stays.

She got her school assignments and did her best to complete them, but the treatments are debilitating and she wasn’t always able to do it. For her senior English research paper she was allowed to write about her cancer treatments. That helped.

Not long after she was diagnosed, the school linked with the Sevier County community to fill in the gap between insurance and out-of-pocket expenses. A huge benefit was held at The Barn in Wears Valley. Other groups held fundraisers. McCarter became a community cause. Thousands of dollars were raised. And it was needed.

“That money the community raised was used to pay for hotel rooms when we had to go to Nashville for treatments, or things insurance didn’t pay for. That money the people raised kept us going. We’ll always be grateful.”

In the middle of her chemo treatments McCarter got permission from her doctors to attend graduation ceremonies, to walk across the stage at Country Tonite and receive her diploma. It was a surprise to nearly everyone there, and the ovation that greeted her appearance still rings in her ears. She got the diploma, but on doctors’ orders left immediately to avoid contact with people, in her weakened state.

After the fifth chemo treatment doctors at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital scheduled surgery to remove the tumor, which they hoped had shrunk. It hadn’t. During an eight-hour procedure last July doctors tried to remove the tumor through the front, but couldn’t get to it. The surgeon got permission from the McCarters to try another route.

After eight hours, he came out to the waiting room, drenched, exhausted, leaned against the wall and said, “We got it all.” Great news, but ...

“After the surgery they told us she had about a 10 percent chance of survival,” Angie McCarter recalled. That was down from 20 percent early on. She stayed in ICU for two weeks.

Her sixth and final chemo treatment in August 2012 was the most aggressive and took the most out of her. That was followed by radiation.

During her treatments she lost 60 pounds and her hair. She lost her taste buds and developed mouth sores during radiation. She became short-tempered, snapping at her parents and sisters, often not even remembering she did it. She once got so frustrated she tried to break the hospital room window and escape.

Everyone accepted that behavior as an aberration.

Following radiation came the stem-cell transplant at Vanderbilt on Sept. 11, 2012. In January she began an experimental antibody treatment.

It all worked. Today Jennifer McCarter is in complete remission. She considers herself cancer-free, although she will have scans every three months for a while to make sure. She takes one pill a day. Doctors have told her there is always a chance the cancer could return, but then she thinks about that dream.

McCarter says her experience led to some real changes in her outlook and priorities.

“I don’t worry about the little things,” she said.

She will attend Maryville College this fall, majoring in human resource management — Maryville honored all scholarships awarded her despite her cancer.

Her goal is to work one day at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, which is known to give job priority to people who were treated there. She is engaged to marry her longtime boyfriend, Cory Nichols, though she insists they won’t marry until after she gets her degree.

She is a member of Hills Creek Baptist Church in Pittman Center. To see Jennifer McCarter today is to see a new look. Her hair wa straight before the treatments, but has grown back curly. She likes it and won’t change it.

She remains extremely close to parents Wayne and Angie and sisters Jessica, 23; Jaimie, 16; and Julie, 11. She knows her siblings suffered from some parental inattention during her treatments and regrets that, but appreciates their attitude about it all.

Jesus was right, she’ll tell you. Everything is OK.

svoit@themountainpress.com. Twitter @stanvoit.