Siedah Sivels spent the summer of 2004 working at Popeye’s Chicken and looking forward to her senior year. Before the summer was over, though, the then-17-year-old’s life would take a dramatic turn.
Siedah, now 19, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in October 2004. Doctors told her of her condition on Oct. 4, two days before her 18th birthday. She went through months of radiation and chemotherapy, missing most of her senior year. Siedah, who attended high school in Oak Park is done with treatment and is glad to have that behind her. She knows, however, that difficult days are still ahead. The last year, Siedah said, changed her.
“It made me look back and say, ‘Don’t take life for granted because you don’t know what can happen to you.'”
Siedah’s form of cancer, called rhabdomyosarcoma, is very rare. It affects mainly children and young adults, ranging in ages from 2 to 6 and 15 to 19. Approximately 90 percent of all diagnosed cases are in individuals younger than age 25. Rhabdomyosarcoma accounts for between five and eight percent of all children’s cancers.
The cancer develops from connective tissues in the body, such as muscles, fat, or blood vessels. Among the noticeable signs of the highly malignant tumor is a lump on the body.
While working at Popeye’s one summer afternoon, Siedah hit her hand on one of the steel counters there. A lump the size of a golf ball sprouted on her left hand. At first, she didn’t think anything of it. But after two weeks, the lump didn’t go down; it actually got bigger and harder.
Her parents took her to John Stroger Hospital on the West Side. Doctors there performed CAT scans and other tests, but couldn’t detect what was wrong. The lump on her hand spread to her upper back and under her arms. It wasn’t until late September last year that doctors performed a biopsy. The family wasn’t told until weeks later that she had cancer.
“It was really upsetting that she was there for four months and no one could tell us what was wrong,” said Siedah’s’ mother Dora.
Dora said the doctors at Stroger Hospital told her that they might have to cut off her daughter’s hand. That was too much for the family to bear.
“When they told me that, I said, ‘no, you’re not cutting off her hand,'” the mother said. “We told her what the doctor’s said. We didn’t keep anything from her. We told her everything. We didn’t want them to do that, but we left it up to Siedah because that’s her body and she had a choice. Even though we’re her parents, it was her choice.”
Siedah decided against the doctor’s suggestion. She has played drums at her church since age seven. She couldn’t imagine not being able to play or do other things without the use of her hand.
“I was just so hurt. It took me by surprise,’ she recalled. “When they told me they would have to cut my fingers off, I couldn’t believe they would actually tell me that. I was like, ‘you’re going to cut my fingers off. I won’t be able to play drums. I can’t write or anything?’ It was hard.”
The family instead transferred Siedah to the University of Chicago Hospital in October 2004. The family opted for radiation and chemotherapy. She had about 11 months of treatment. The period was particularly tough on her father Gerald.
Along with worrying about Siedah’s health, all he could remember was the day she was born. Siedah was born premature in 1986. She was in the hospital for three months at that time.
“Those were the three longest months of my life,” recalled Gerald Sivels, who tried to keep his and Siedah’s sprits up as she battled cancer. “I lost most of my hair this past year. I joked with her and said, ‘OK, we both lost our hair so it’s a race now to see who’s going to grow it back.’ She said, ‘Dad, you’re gonna lose.’
“I had to stay strong,” he added. “It tried my faith. The first thing I asked God was why; why my child? It seemed like everything was against her, but she’s a fighter.”
With all that the family has gone through in the last year, her parents were able to give her a surprise she would never forget.
The family took Siedah to Orlando last month through Operation Liftoff, a nonprofit organization that grants trips to terminally ill youth. The organization paid for all of the family’s expenses, including a shopping spree for Siedah.
But for several months prior to the trip Dora had been trying to arrange a meeting between Siedah and her favorite television actress Catherine Bell, star of the CBS program JAG. Dora and her girlfriend had called the network and were able to get in touch with Bell’s assistant. Bell herself is a cancer survivor.
Dora was able to arrange for Bell to meet Siedah in Clearwater Fla., just north of Orlando. Dora told her daughter they were going shopping. Joined by Siedah’s aunt, who has made all the wigs Siedah wears, the three ladies met up with Bell’s assistant, who came along with her boyfriend and mother to help throw Siedah off.
Dora had to pull out all the stops to not let Siedah know what was going on.
“I’m always meeting people, so she thought I just met some people while we were there and invited them to dinner,” she said.
Her daughter had no idea what her mother was up to, but went along anyway.
“I was like ‘cool, we’re going somewhere to shop.’ And she was just wasting time and I asked her, ‘what are we doing here; why are we wasting time when we can be shopping. Do you have something up your sleeve again?’ And she said no. Then she got on the phone with some lady and was talking to her. She said, ‘oh, this is a lady I met.’
They all went to a restaurant where Catherine Bell was waiting.
“I had my back turned to the door,” Siedah recalled. “My mother had got up and left. I didn’t pay any attention to it. I thought she went to go to the bathroom or something. She came out and said, ‘I have someone who wants to meet you.’ I turned around and was like, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God.’ It was so overwhelming.”
Bell had dinner with Siedah and the rest of the group. Siedah said she had more questions for Bell than she could ask. She was still too high.
Siedah plans on attending Triton College in January, but she wants to enter the Navy and become a lawyer like her TV idols.
Siedah believes God healed her. She still has bouts of fatigue and she doesn’t eat like she use to. She and her family said their faith and family helped them get through the last year.
“At first I was angry,” she said about first learning her diagnosis. “I thought, ‘why me? I’m a good kid. I don’t get into trouble. Why did this happen to me?’ But I got over it. I want the young people to hear my story, and I want to help someone else who’s going through it. I want to help then not to be afraid. I was afraid but I got over it.”