Pictured above, Joey (standing left), Ashley (standing center), Lydia (standing right) and Mollie Millican (sitting left) smile for a family photo.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
As September recognizes the families worldwide who battle childhood cancer with their children, one Etowah County family represents a victorious testimony of the importance of togetherness and the power of belief.
Despite all the hardships that affected the Millicans over the past few years, one fact remains as their motivation to overcome. Though cancer might emerge as a thief, it will never steal the essence of their strength – their faith, hope and love.
Fourteen-year-old Lydia Millican describes herself as someone who never meets a stranger – an outgoing personality with a touch of sass. A natural social butterfly, she loves hanging out with her friends and remains very involved in her youth group at Fairview Baptist Church. When she isn’t settling in to watch Halloween films like Hocus Pocus and the Twilight series, she is fond of curling up with page-turning mystery and thriller novels.
“Lydia’s got a big heart and she can’t stand to hurt people’s feelings,” said her mother Ashley. “She talks a lot. She’s just sweet, and she’s always smiling. Even through all of this, she’s only had a little bit of down time and she had to go through a lot before she even got there. She’s really funny [too], but she has a sweet heart. She loves everybody.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is, [Lydia] is always going to have a smile on her face,” said her father Joey. “She’s got a little country accent, and she always has these sayings that just get to you. She captivates a room. She has the best attitude. I recall being at the hospital, and her being there maybe on-and-off 40 days in a row. Even though she was hurting and sick, she’s wanting us to check on other kids. She has a caring, loving heart for others. No matter what she’s going through, she’s caring about someone else.”
While Contemporary Christian music is one of Lydia’s favorite genres, the iconic Dolly Parton voices some of her favorite songs. One Christmas, a video of Lydia singing karaoke circulated around Facebook. Before long, the Millicans were contacted by a woman at Dollywood who told them Lydia’s video had been submitted, and Parton was holding a meet-and-greet. When Lydia was invited to meet Parton, she could not refuse.
“[Dolly] is really just like she is on everything else,” said Lydia. “She wasn’t any different. She’s really personal, and acted like she had known me my whole life. She offered me a wig, and we sang 9 to 5 and Jolene together.”
While Lydia collaborates with famous musicians as a pastime, the kind-hearted teenager also channels her encouraging nature into cheerleading, a sport she enjoyed since middle school. Though Lydia loves the team effort and dance routines in cheerleading, she leaves the remaining sports to her sister Mollie. Lydia confessed that she and Mollie are complete opposites: athletic Mollie plays every sport in the book, while Lydia is content on the sidelines, not having to sweat.
Just 18 months a part, 13-year old Mollie shares Lydia’s compassionate spirit. A natural protector, Mollie possesses a courageous heart and a strong sense of self that leads her towards helping others in need. From keeping secrets to sharing laughter, Mollie and Lydia encompass the true essence of sisterhood. Though the pair might bicker as most teenagers do, they truly are each other’s biggest fans, and their love for one another is undeniable.
“Mollie is very bold,” said Ashley. “She’s a rule follower, but she’s not a follower. I like that, because she’s always pulling for the underdog. [Mollie is the person] who sits with the person at lunch who no one has anybody sitting with. She’s got a sweet heart, too.”
“Through this whole time, Mollie has been really good,” said Joey. “She’s been a wonderful young lady and daughter to understand what [Lydia] is going through and be supportive of Lydia as well.”
Two years ago, Lydia noticed that when she finished cheer practice, her left knee felt twisted. Though the pain was never excruciating and her discomfort was always eased with ice and Motrin, that same bizarre feeling kept returning after practice for three weeks. While Ashley attended a fourth-grade field trip with Mollie in Montgomery on April 19, 2018, Joey and Lydia visited Dr. Chris Kelley at Northeast Orthopedic Sports Clinic in Gadsden. The moment Dr. Kelley observed Lydia’s X-Ray’s, he knew something was wrong. He sent Lydia for an MRI while Joey called Ashley to come home.
“I never drive by myself, ever,” said Ashley. “I never have. I rode with friends or on the school bus, but that particular day, I drove my own car by myself. I knew that was just God taking care of us that day, because Mollie was able to stay with some friends and I got home as soon as I could.”
When Ashley arrived in Gadsden, the radiologist took her and Joey into his office and delivered life-altering news: Lydia had cancer. As she and Joey both experienced a flood of emotions, Ashley remembered anger and disbelief coming over her.
“I let them know right away that I believe in a higher power and I don’t believe [my daughter has cancer],” said Ashley. “The radiologist said, ‘Well I hope you stay focused on your faith because you’re going to need it.’ He knew what we were about to go through. We had no idea.”
From that initial appointment with Dr. Kelley in April, Lydia transitioned to Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham, where she underwent two biopsies of her knee. While Lydia’s knee never revealed any major outer signs of cancer before the biopsies, after the procedures her leg began to swell and expand – evidence of a tumor. Lydia’s tumor resulted from osteosarcoma, a form of cancer produced in immature bones typically affecting individuals under the age of 25. She was 12 years old.
“I had a day where I kind of locked myself in my room and let it all out,” said Lydia. “Then I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ We can’t get around it, so we have to get through it. I just put a smile on my face and don’t show people I’m hurting. I can show people I’m hurting, but why would I want to? I guess I just kind of put on a smile and went with it.”
On May 14, 2018, Lydia began chemotherapy treatments according to a “chemo map” that detailed the medical response plan for Lydia’s condition. The goal was to complete 18 rounds of chemo, and Lydia was treated with three different types of chemotherapy. The adjustments were not easy, but Ashley recalled the endless support she received from the beginning.
“After Lydia had chemo the first time, she got really sick and was in the hospital for about a month,” said Ashley. “That was horrible…that was hard. It was really hard being away from Mollie. Childhood cancer is horrible dealing with just that, but if there are siblings involved, that is horrible too. It’s very hard to be a mother [both] in Birmingham and at home, but thank God for family and friends that step up and help me be the mom. Joey is wonderful, too. He would be home as much as he possibly could. You feel so torn though, because you’ve got two kids…one at home, and one in the hospital.”
Ashley and Joey discussed the importance of a strong parental partnership throughout Lydia’s journey. Both commended one another for their diligence and commitment to their children, noting that each other’s support is vital to get through each day.
“I can’t say enough about my wife,” said Joey. “She is the most amazing woman ever – her strength being a wife and a mother, and everything she has to do amazes me.”
After six rounds of chemotherapy, Lydia endured her first surgery on September 12, 2018. The procedure was a limb salvage surgery where doctors removed the tumor, her entire knee and six inches of her femur and replaced Lydia’s knee with a metal implant. Lydia finished chemotherapy treatments in March of 2019, celebrating with a parade in her neighborhood and a sleepover with her best friends, whose encouragement and reassurance were constant forces in Lydia’s life to help her and inspire her to stay strong.
“I have friends from Pre-K and Elementary School who have stayed with me through sixth-grade, but in middle school I met girls that I’ve also added to the friend group,” said Lydia. “They really are very supportive and always checking up on me, making sure I keep caught up with school. They really look out for me.”
“She’s got a couple little girls who just help her every day at school,” said Ashley. “Because Lydia is on her crutches, they would carry her bookbag and her lunch bag. They were her other hands. They just took care of her.”
Following Lydia’s completion of chemotherapy, she underwent scans every three months to remain updated on her health. During her first scan in June, evidence of disease reoccurred in Lydia’s leg.
“That was just heartbreaking because you think you’re done,” said Ashley. “You’ve gone through this year of everything and you think you’re finished, just to find out you’re not. I remember them taking us into a room and telling us this kind of changed everything.”
The Millicans received a second opinion from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston which informed them that the treatment plan at Children’s aligned equally with other hospitals. A year from the day of her initial surgery, Lydia underwent another procedure to remove the nodules that had formed in her leg. Although the surgeons deemed the surgery successful and opted to keep performing scans without chemo, from that point on Lydia’s leg did not improve.
“[My leg] didn’t bend,” Lydia said. “It looked sick.”
In December of 2019, the Millicans discovered what they thought might be infection in Lydia’s leg was cancerous again. At this point, the only treatment remaining was amputation. On January 8, 2020, surgeons at UAB Highlands amputated Lydia’s left leg.
Following Lydia’s amputation, recovery and therapy, the Millicans traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee to investigate a prosthesis. In Chattanooga, Lydia connected with the man who fitted her for her prosthetic leg, who is an amputee himself.
“He really understands [what I’m going through],” said Lydia. “I can say, ‘Oh, the bottom of my nub feels like it’s pulling,’ and he’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s not right. I’ve felt that too.’ Mama and everybody else couldn’t feel that. He’s a rock climber, he does everything – he really helps a lot.”
Lydia excelled at adapting to life with a prosthesis, teaching herself how to do flips on the trampoline and walk. But before long, the Millicans received another catastrophic scan: the cancer was back yet again, but this time it manifested in Lydia’s lungs.
“That was our lowest point,” said Ashley. “You think, we just went through all this. We went through an amputation, we’re good to go. It’s never been in her lungs [before] and here it is. That was really hard.”
On April 24, 2020, Lydia underwent a thoracotomy (a surgical procedure to gain access into the pleural space of the chest) to remove the calcified nodules that formed in her lungs. Not long after this extensive surgery, the pain in Lydia’s left leg returned once more, and Lydia found herself undergoing another amputation on May 12, 2020. During this most recent surgery, the doctors removed Lydia’s entire femur and added an implant with the hopes that she can be refitted for another prosthesis in the future.
Lydia is currently still healing from her second amputation surgery, while taking an outpatient form of chemotherapy treatment. Though she still has a few spots on her lungs, this form of chemotherapy is working successfully, and recent scans proved the nodules in her lungs have nearly withered to nothing. Additionally, this chemo will assist with any cancer that might affect Lydia’s leg.
Due to her condition, Lydia did not attend school in person during seventh-grade. She instead participated in homebound learning, an instructional plan featuring educational services by school district personnel within a student’s home. Though Lydia had a teacher to assist her, she missed being away from her friends and learning in a traditional classroom environment. She attended eight-grade for a while in person, before returning to homebound learning. Despite everything, Lydia finished sixth in her eighth-grade graduating class, proving her determination to overcome regardless of any challenge she might face.
Now a ninth-grader at Etowah High School, Lydia aspires to fulfill great plans in her future. Following high school, she wants to attend college and pursue a profession that allows her to work with children. Inspired by her own nurses and child life specialists at Children’s, Lydia hopes to influence and comfort children enduring experiences similar to her own.
“I’m thinking about being a teacher for the oncology floor or maybe a social worker or child life specialist that explains [situations] and makes [the process] easier for kids to understand what is going on,” said Lydia. “It can get boring, and they make it pretty fun.”
Throughout all the Millicans have experienced, from the trials to the triumphs, their comfort remains rooted in one single promise: their faith. Each challenge Lydia faced she confronted with a smile, and continues to clutch tightly to her hope today. Her everlasting and unwavering belief in God’s promise of healing emerges as a powerful testimony of endurance, strength and commitment as she strives toward that manifestation. Without a doubt, Lydia understands that whatever she might encounter, she does not fight this battle alone – she can do all things through Christ who strengthens her, uplifts her and stands by her side.
“I can remember right when Lydia was diagnosed, I was sitting on my back deck and I was just praying,” said Ashley. “I thought, ‘Why, God? There is nothing you can tell me that makes me understand why a child has to have this and why a child has to be sick.’ I’ll never forget there was just a peace that came over me. God just spoke to me that day and said, ‘Yes, Lydia is physically sick, but her soul is healthy. Her soul is not sick – her soul is happy, and we know where she is going. Who is sick are people who don’t know me. Those are the people who have no salvation.’ That’s who we need to be worried about. That’s the most important thing.”
“I’ve seen [God working] through this time,” said Joey. “When it gets so bad and I think I can’t [go on] and it’s hard to keep going, He reaches down and picks us up and puts us on His shoulders and carries us. That blesses my heart to know He’ll do that. We will continue to stay strong in our faith and trust His plans as Jeremiah 29:11 says. We know that He could heal her at any moment. That’s what we continue to pray for. We have hope. Without hope, there is nothing.”
The Millicans offered a few closing words to other families affected by childhood cancer, encouraging them to reach out to the source they recognize as their hope.
“The most important thing I would say is pray and read the word,” said Joey. “Get closer to God, pray out to Him and want to get to know Him better. Don’t fight this battle alone. Reach out to someone that can help you as well – other people who are going through this. Without God, nothing is possible. Ask Him for His comfort, His loving arms to reach out and be with you.”
“Stay on your knees,” said Ashley. “I can’t imagine going through this without God, without faith. Take it a day at time; pray without ceasing. Thank God for your family – our church family and friends have been the backbone and helped us stand in the gap when we’ve been so down. Love on your babies, because life can change in a second. Just stay strong and hold onto each other…hold onto your spouse. You get so wound up in everything, it’s so easy to let that come between you. But just cling to each other and cling to God.”
“We’re not perfect by any means – we’re just your ordinary family,” said Ashley. “I think that through all of this, I hope that what anybody remembers or sees is Jesus shining [through us]. They can sit back and say, ‘How do they laugh? How do they smile?’ We’re not always laughing and smiling, but through it all, we have a peace that nobody else could give us by God. I just hope that Jesus shines through every one of us. You can’t take our joy. Cancer can take a lot of things, but it can’t take our joy.”
“It’s going to be hard,” said Mollie. “But just find certain people you can talk to. Talk to them and say how you feel.”
“Trust in God and have faith,” said Lydia. “Just take each day a step at a time. None of your days are going to be the same. You’ll have bad and you’ll have good, but on your good days just live it to the fullest and don’t live in sorrow. Get out there and have fun…even if you don’t feel like it.”