The room bustles with the sounds of coffee grinding, customers chatting and baristas calling out orders. Two sisters bite into cake pops between giggles. It is not readily apparent that one is fighting the battle of her life.
Averie Anderson and her younger sister, Jazmine, look like any siblings spending time together at a local Starbucks. Despite their obvious age difference, the two have a close relationship filled with laughter, sass and creativity. At a glance, no one would know Jazmine has cancer.
“We noticed right away she had brown spots on her skin,” said Melissa Anderson, the girls' mother. “We took her into the doctor, and we were told that it was nothing. We just knew that there was something to it, so we fought to get her a new pediatrician and then she was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis.”
The Andersons originally took Jazmine in as a foster child when she was 6 months old, with the idea of reuniting her with her birth parents. The goal later shifted to adoption, which became official when Jazmine was 2. She was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis before her first birthday, and with bilateral optic pathway glioma brain tumors a few months before the adoption was finalized.
“Members of her biological family had the same thing, so we kind of had an idea and knew what was up,” said Averie, but hearing the news was still devastating.
Neurofibromatosis is a genetic disorder in which tumors called neurofibromas develop in the brain, spinal cord and nerves. They may be either cancerous or benign. Symptoms include patches on the skin, hearing loss, vision loss and bumps under the skin.
“I guess, as far as the neurofibromatosis, it wasn’t a big shock or anything. It was just something that we would deal with. When she was diagnosed with the brain tumors, that was a little bit more to handle,” Melissa Anderson said. “I think it was devastating for all of us, but you just deal with it day by day."
After the diagnosis, Jazmine was referred to the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis, where she waited two months to get an appointment. From there, they were told that they would have to take a wait-and-see approach with the tumors. Meanwhile, Jazmine had regular follow-up care with a neuro-oncologist as well as a pediatric ophthalmologist closely monitoring her vision. When vision changes were noted after two months, the plan was immediately changed to chemotherapy.
“The time in between — that’s always the worst,” Melissa Anderson said. “The waiting is the hardest part — just not knowing what’s going on inside of her head.”
The first round of chemotherapy lasted 15 months -- a roller-coaster ride that included admissions to the hospital and limited outside activity due to her compromised immune system.
“She takes it like a champ,” Averie said.
During times of lab tests and chemotherapy, family friends were updated through a group chat, in which Melissa Anderson and other family members shared Jazmine’s results throughout the process.
“It’s exciting to know. All of us are worried about Jazmine, too,” said Baily Brooks, a friend of Averie's. “We have a group chat, and Averie will always tell us the results, if it’s bad or if it’s good."
When things are looking grim, the Andersons look to one another for strength, support and courage, having learned to take the process one day at a time.
“That initial getting results back and going there is always tough for (Averie), but she always looks on the bright side because she knows that Jazmine’s a fighter and that she’s gone through so much already,” Brooks said. “Averie knows that she can get through it, so she stays positive.”
After a year free of chemotherapy, a June test showed growth of the tumors, resulting in Jazmine’s second round of chemo.
“The nurses and doctors are great; she loves going to see them,” Melissa Anderson said. “She actually enjoys going because she gets to see all her favorite people. It’s not really a stressful thing for her anymore.”
This round has proved more difficult as Jazmine is older and better able to comprehend what’s happening around her.
“It’s a little bit harder for her, and she puts a little bit more of a fuss up when she has to get blood work and stuff, but overall she does amazing,” Melissa Anderson said. “She does great with it; she’s feeling really good. This chemo hasn’t affected her very much at all so far, so we’re grateful for that.”
Melissa Anderson said she has noticed and appreciated the aid that Averie offers with Jazmine and the rest of the family.
“I don’t think we could do what we do without Averie’s help,” she said. “She’s like my backup.”
Watching Jazmine grow up has not always been easy with the bouts of chemo and trips to Minneapolis every six weeks, but the 5-year-old’s spunky personality and charismatic smile has paved a way into the hearts of many.
“She loves everybody and everything, and she’s not afraid to tell you,” Melissa Anderson said. “She’s always like, ‘Oh, I love you, Mommy, I love you.’ She wraps everybody around her finger. She’s so lovable and just fun to be around. There’s never a dull moment with her.”
Averie and Jazmine are practically inseparable, often going on sister dates or sharing fashion advice. Some of their favorite places to visit are local parks, the mall, the pumpkin patch and Starbucks, where Jazmine adores the cake pops.
“She calls me her best friend,” Averie said.