Annika Juul-Borre’s momentum seemed off balance as she ran back from the mailbox at her Templeton home one afternoon in February.
The vivacious 3-year-old was having difficulty maneuvering, slightly listing to the left.
The difference in her gait was subtle, but enough for her mother, Sarah Juul-Borre, to be concerned.
She remembered that previously, on a family trip to Yosemite, Annika struggled walking in the snow. And Annika had fallen the week before at preschool.
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Juul-Borre, a registered nurse at Atascadero State Hospital, made a doctor’s appointment. It was a Friday when she had noticed Annika being off balance; she spent the weekend online researching her daughter’s symptoms.
“I couldn’t find any explanation for the balance issues online other than the worst,” Juul-Borre said. “At that point, I kind of knew something was really wrong.”
At the doctor’s office, her fear was confirmed: Annika was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
She would soon begin a long journey to recovery.
Battling the cancer
The fast-growing tumor, called medulloblastoma, was discovered in the fourth ventricle of Annika’s brain.
She was rushed to UCLA Medical Center within 24 hours of the diagnosis, and a neurosurgeon removed the tumor that week.
The risk of the invasive cancer returning is high without additional radiation and chemotherapy.
“As far as the doctors could see, they were able to get the whole tumor, but even a tiny little cell somewhere else in the spinal fluid can cause another one,” Juul-Borre said.
Annika, who will soon start her seventh and final week of radiation treatment at the UCLA Medical Center, will get only a month reprieve before a 10-month round of chemotherapy begins.
The combined treatments give Annika an 80 percent chance of living cancer free.
So far, she’s borne the physical effects of the radiation and the surgery well, and those who know her say her spirit remains as strong as it did before cancer.
After the surgery, Annika lost movement in the right side of her body. She’s slowly learning to walk again, but it’s not clear if she’ll ever regain the same balance.
The looming effects of the chemotherapy mean she may lose her hearing, and her small body will likely struggle with the treatment.
“I struggle with putting her through all of this — constantly questioning my decision,” Juul-Borre said. “But as a parent, I can’t say no to the treatment for the chance that it will come back.”
Miles of challenges
Every Monday morning, Juul-Borre and Annika drive from their Templeton home to UCLA Medical Center for radiation treatment. They return home on Fridays to spend the weekend as a family with Annika’s sister, Leah, 14, and brother, Isaac, 13.
On Sundays, they go to church and pray for strength as a family and for a cure for Annika.
Co-workers at Atascadero State Hospital donated 580 hours of their vacation time to allow Juul-Borre to take the time off work without losing pay.
At times the emotional stress makes Annika angry, and she loses her cheerful nature.
“When she is emotionally high, everything and everyone is great. When’s she upset her whole mood changes,” said Juul-Borre. “But that is OK. At least she is reacting and moving around — I’ll take angry and ornery.”
Each day, the challenges come and pass, and Juul-Borre puts her faith in Annika’s smile.