In the spring of 2004, Oak Park resident and Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate, Siedah Sivels, was a 17-year-old employee of Popeye’s chicken. While on duty one day, she hit her hand on a counter-top. This seemingly inconsequential accident at work resulted in the formation of an egg shaped knot on the back of her left hand.

After months of waiting for the injury to heal on its own, her parents, Dora and Gerald Sivels, decided to take her into John Stroger Hospital in June of 2004.

“We noticed that it was getting redder and definitely had fever in it,” said Dora. “I was under the impression that what was wrong was that she just had a cyst and that was all.”

After three months of testing and dozens of calls to the Stroger physicians regarding their findings from the MRI and CAT scans, doctors finally concluded that Siedah suffered from a rare form of cancer called rabdomyosarcoma.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a highly malignant tumor which generally occurs in children age 1-5 or teens age 15 to 19, although it is considered quite rare in the latter demographic.

Rhabdomyosarcoma tumors occur when a cell named the “rhabdomyoblast,” which is a primitive muscle cell, cannot differentiate between skeletal and strained muscle cells. Consequently, the rhabdomyoblasts grow out of control.

Symptoms of the disease include noticeable lumps somewhere on a child’s body. If the tumor is located internally, the symptoms depend on its location.

In the case of Siedah, the lump was located between the knuckles of her middle and ring fingers. During the process of diagnosing it, more lumps appeared on her arm. Surgery was imminent.

However, the doctors at Stroger recommended a solution the Sivels were not prepared for.

“They wanted to remove Siedah’s ring and middle fingers,” said Dora. “I said no. I was not going to let that happen unless there were no other alternatives.”

Along with being a hindrance on Siedah’s use of her left hand, the finger amputation would also hinder her ability to play the drums in her church choir, which was one of her favorite activities.

“So I told my boss at the time, oncologist Terri Dallas-Prunskis, about what had happened, and she suggested I seek out colleagues of hers at the University of Chicago,” said Dora.

Dr. Charles Reuben (oncology), Dr. Terrance Peabody (orthopedics) and Dr. Phillip Connell (radiology) began treating Siedah in October of 2004 through chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“As a parent, you never want to see your child in pain and ill. We prayed through all of the treatments and chemo, it was a very difficult time,” said Dora.

An unexpected gift

Nevertheless, despite the stress the Sivels encountered during the 11 months of chemotherapy, the family did receive an unexpected reprieve from it.

Courtesy of the non-profit organization Operation Liftoff, which arranges and finances trips for children with terminal illnesses, Siedah and her parents were given the opportunity to travel to Orlando to visit the studio where the former CBS series JAG was filmed in 2005.

During the planning of the trip, Dora arranged a meeting between Siedah and her favorite television actress, Catherine Bell, who was one of the co-stars of JAG.

“It was a wonderful experience because she said that she herself was a cancer survivor, and she wanted me to feel encouraged about overcoming the disease,” said Siedah. “It was great to just sit and have lunch with her.”

As a consequence of Siedah’s draining chemotherapy, she was unable to complete her classroom work during her senior year at OPRF. However, her instructor Debra Blumingberg, a dean counselor at the school, tutored her during the days prior to graduation.

“She really was a blessing because she had other students and other responsibilities but she wanted to ensure that Siedah graduated,” said Dora. “We owe her everything.”

Following the nearly year-long chemotherapy treatment, Siedah’s cancer was declared in remission and she failed to show any further symptoms for the better part of 2005.

However, in May of 2006, she once again found a knot in her lower left arm and required radiation therapy.

“I was upset about the setback and began writing and getting more involved in the church to give me strength,” said Siedah.

After removing the knot and administering radiation treatments on Siedah the threat seemed to be neutralized for the time being.

Nevertheless, knots appeared again in April 2007, in the upper left arm and October of 2007 in her lower pelvic area, leading to more time spent with radiologist Connell.

Purpose and hope

“I am attending Triton College now but because of my radiation treatments I was relegated to only one class,” said Siedah, who was forced to use crutches in November because of the sensitive nature of her pelvis during the treatments.

Siedah will finish her latest flurry of treatments by the end of December. She says she hopes to study criminal justice and go into law.

“I am thinking about becoming a Navy lawyer,” said Siedah just like the character Bell played on JAG.

Currently, Dora Sivels is working full-time in the home, ensuring that Siedah does not miss a single appointment, which she must attend three times a week.

Gerald Sivels works outside the home as manager of an apartment building. He says people within the Oak Park community often stop him on his way to work and send him well wishes and words of encouragement for himself, his wife and Siedah.

“I’m very humbled by the number of people who read about our story or just know me from the area and say, ‘I’m praying for your family,'” said Gerald. “I know that Siedah is a deeply blessed young woman, and we have the utmost faith that she will overcome this disease by her sheer will.”

“It is my hope that someone would be encouraged about my life story. Especially, at this time of the year, some people are sad and depressed, not everyone has joy at Christmas time,” said Siedah.

“I want them to know that no matter what storm or struggle they are in, they can make it, because there is hope for them.”

“If you have breath in your body there’s purpose for your life. Never give up, fight to the end, pray and trust God in your life struggles.”