05/05/13 — Survivor strong

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Survivor strong

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 5, 2013 1:50 AM

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Tiffany Hill shows off her senior project -- a report on lung cancer. She knows the disease well, having battled it when she was just 6 years old.

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In this photo, taken in 2000, Tiffany is prepped for lung surgery at UNC Hospitals.

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Holly, Tiffany and Doug Hill are among the thousands expected to attend Relay For Life this weekend at the Wayne County Fairgrounds. Tiffany, 19, was diagnosed with lung cancer -- and had the majority of one of her lungs removed -- at just 6 years old.

A teenage girl breaks down when, after flipping through a scrapbook she created for a school project, she reaches the page dedicated to friends and family members she has lost to cancer.

"That's my hero -- my Grandma Baker," she says, her voice trembling. "She had lung cancer like me."

Tiffany Hill tries to collect herself, but the tears keep falling.

It has been more than a decade since she beat the disease that claimed her grandmother and it still doesn't seem fair.

At 19, she still can't quite come to terms with why she survived when so many of her loved ones didn't.

"It kind of makes me think, sometimes, that I'm the only cancer survivor," Tiffany said, as more tears rolled off her cheeks. "Like I'm alone."


A kindergartner passes out during a field trip.

When she finally comes to, she is in her teacher's arms.

"I woke back up and asked her what happened," Tiffany said. "And then I saw my mom."

The then-6-year-old's mother, Holly, didn't know what to think when she received a phone call from the Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace.

So when she reached her daughter's side, she took her to Wayne Memorial Hospital.

At first, the doctors thought it was pneumonia.

But when the family's physician -- a man Tiffany's father, Doug, characterized as someone he trusted more than anyone -- completed his examination, he wasn't convinced.

"He listened to her lungs and he said, 'You know, I've been listening to lungs for a long time and this is not pneumonia. There is something else going on,'" Doug said. "After that, they ordered an MRI."

Doug still gets emotional when he thinks about what happened next -- how his little girl wailed when they "put the dye into her."

"I was out in the hallway and I could hear her screaming," he said. "That really tore me up."

But even then, he had no idea that his family's journey was just beginning -- that a long, trying road lay ahead.

"When the test results came back, they said there was an abnormality in her left lung -- a mass," Doug said. "When the doctor talked to us, he said, 'Well, I don't want to get you real alarmed here, but something just isn't right.'"

So they referred her to UNC Hospitals -- hoping someone with more expertise could make a diagnosis.

"We went up there and ... it took them five minutes," Doug said. "They said, we need to get her into surgery."

They never said the word cancer.

But Holly knew.

"It was paralyzing to me because we have been affected by cancer. My dad had it. My mother passed away from lung cancer," she said, looking over at Tiffany. "So it scared me for her. It was all I could think about."

Doug nodded his head.

"That's when things started to kick in. This was really happening. This was really my kid going through all this," he said, choking up. "It's hard to talk about. Even still."


A little girl is prepped for thoracic surgery.

"It's just so hard to talk to a 6-year-old and get them to understand," Holly said. "We didn't want to scare her. It's just something that we didn't want to talk about."

Tiffany remembers the explanation.

"They told me I was going to go to sleep and that I would wake back up. I didn't really know what the word cancer meant," she said. "Then I had to pick a parent to go in there with me. They said, 'Which parent do you want? Mom or Dad?' I was Daddy's little girl so I picked Mom."

Doug looked down.

"I would have been a total mess," he said, shaking his head. "Really."

So while his wife and daughter went into an operating room in Chapel Hill, he stayed in a waiting area.

"Me and (this man) were sitting there and his daughter was going through something. I'll never forget it because we were sitting there and he was like, 'Just have faith in the Lord and let things go.' Then he gave me a hug," Doug said. "I just felt something touch me that day that I've never felt again in my life. After that, I just knew things would work out."

Tiffany was not so sure.

Not too far away, she was in a room she remembers only as being "really white."

"And you could see all the knives and tools and stuff," she said. "I didn't like that."

Holly was charged with putting the mask on her daughter -- with being the last face Tiffany would see before a risky procedure.

"She put the mask on me and I started freaking out," Tiffany said. "But then, they said something about Disney World. They said, 'Think about Disney World,' and I was out."

Holly smiled.

"It was hard to leave that room," she said. "You have no idea."


A grown man loses himself to the emotions brought on by the voice on the other end of the phone.

It has been more than six hours since doctors began working on his little girl and something has gone wrong.

"I see him on the phone and he starts crying," Holly added. "Whenever I see him crying, I'm thinking, 'I've lost my daughter. I've lost my daughter.'"

Tiffany was fading -- a result, her parents said, of their compliance with a request from the hospital to film their daughter's surgery as part of a medical study.

"The camera had nicked an artery," Holly said. "She was bleeding to death."

It would be four hours -- the longest, Doug said, of his life -- before his little girl would be wheeled by him.

"She had tubes and wires," Holly said. "It was like living a nightmare."

And it would take a four-day stint in the Intensive Care Unit -- and nearly seven weeks at UNC -- for her body to recover from the trauma.

"The doctor, he said things didn't go the way he wanted them to, but that everything was done," Doug said. "They got everything."

They would later learn just what "everything" meant -- 20 "ping pong ball size" cysts and nearly all of the girl's left lung.

"From there, it was just a healing process," Doug said.


Doug wipes tears from his eyes when he talks about Tiffany's release from the hospital.

It has been more than 13 years, but it isn't lost on the father just how close he came to losing the little girl he had dreamed about having since the moment his wife told him she was pregnant with their second child.

"We were ready to come home," he said. "We were ready to lose everything. The bills were flying in like crazy."

And their car had been repossessed -- their home placed into foreclosure.

"It was a crazy time -- a blur," Doug said. "It still is."

So on the night before Easter 2000, the little girl's father humbled himself.

"When a kid has lung surgery, they hook them up to this machine and when the lung isn't healed, these bubbles go into it. ... So they were telling us, 'We can't let Tiffany out until those bubbles stop in the machine,'" he said, choking up. "So that night, I just prayed. I just got on my knees. I've never prayed that hard in my life."

Doug takes a moment to collect himself -- wiping more tears from his eyes.

"I said, 'God. I need my family back together,'" he said. "I said, 'Please. Please just let this be over.'"

The next day, the bubbles were gone.

Tiffany was healed.


Tiffany has been in remission since she came out of surgery, but cancer remains a part of her life.

It's with her when she speaks to friends and classmates about her battle.

It's there when she uses a machine that helps her breathe.

It shows up when she weeps for those, like her grandmother, she has lost to the disease -- when she is overcome by the fear that one day, she will have another battle to wage.

"My fear is getting it again," Tiffany said, again breaking down. "Not knowing when you could get it again."

She still feels, at times, like she is alone -- that she, in her own words, is "the only cancer survivor."

But for one weekend a year, those thoughts subside.

So she will join the thousands expected to attend the 2013 Relay For Life Friday at the Wayne County Fairgrounds.

She will remain an advocate for research.

"I think I just want people to be aware that it can happen to anybody," she said.

And when she graduates, this year, from high school, she will pursue the career -- nursing -- she believes she was destined for.

"So I can help little kids with cancer. So I can help people like me," Tiffany said. "So they know they're not alone."