For the past four months, Sandy Thornton has worked hard to stay the course in the aftermath of learning her 17-year-old daughter Sarah Jernigan has cancer.
The news on March 6 that the Southern Wayne High School student has hypodploid acute lymphoblastic leukemia devastated the family both emotionally and financially.
It has also dealt the teen a heavy hand of life-threatening side effects -- including a blood clot on the brain, drug-induced diabetes, surgery to remove her appendix and the need for a bone marrow transplant.
A silver lining came in learning that Sarah's younger sister, Savannah, is a match for the transplant. Efforts amped up for that to take place July 16.
Then came the setback over a week ago, in the form of two dreaded words -- leukemia's back.
"We had just had the bone marrow testing, she's completed all her testing to go through with the bone marrow and the biopsy," Thornton said. "Now it'll have to be put on hold."
Not the outcome they had hoped for, as everything had begun to line up nicely.
Both girls had their own team of transplant doctors and were counting down to the day of the surgery.
Instead, Sarah is again hospitalized at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill for a 28-day regimen of chemotherapy to deal with the cancer's return.
"We were so close," Thornton said softly.
The family knew going in this was not going to be an easy journey. Their oncologist at UNC, Dr. Stuart Gold, said as much.
"Dr. Gold told me one time in the hallway, 'You know, she's going to be tough to treat,'" Thornton said. "But he tells Sarah all the time, 'We're going to kick butt. It's a setback, but we're still going to kick butt.'"
Positive messages and the power of hope and faith are what keeps the single mother going, she says.
Anything else is just a "bump in the road" and a time-wasting distraction from the task at hand, Thornton maintains.
"There's no point in getting upset. Because what good is that going to do?" she said.
The mother of four credits her middle daughter with keeping her going, while Sarah is just as quick to repay the compliment.
"My mom and my aunt Lou because they've both got my back for everything. And God," Sarah said, before admitting, "There have been times that I've gotten really depressed."
"And angry," chimed in her mom. "But it doesn't last long."
Despite the harrowing diagnosis, Sarah never complains, Thornton said.
"She's the best trooper you would ever want to meet," she said. "She's my strength -- sometimes I sit and I just want to cry. She'll reassure me.
"It should be me telling her this stuff and she is telling it to me."
About a year ago, Thornton moved with the two girls from Goldsboro to Mount Olive. She also has two older children -- Carly Thornton, who recently moved in with her four children to take care of Savannah while Sandy is at the hospital, and son Barry "B.J." Thornton.
Sandy's sister Loretta "Lou" Hopper and her husband, Stanley, live in Kentucky and have also spearheaded efforts to support the family during this time.
Lou set up a GoFundMe page, at gf.me/u//h754ci or Sarah's Fight Against Leukemia.
"My original goal was to get enough because she's a single mom, to pay her rent and car payment for a year so she didn't have to worry," Lou said on a recent visit. "That's the important thing to me as her sister and being far away, since she has no support system down here -- all of her family's in Kentucky."
Sandy works at a Circle K store in Goldsboro but Sarah has been out of school since the March diagnosis. The bulk of each week has been spent traveling to Chapel Hill and staying at either the hospital or Ronald McDonald House.
Once the latest round of chemo wraps up in a few weeks, there is still the anticipated transplant and radiation, with Sarah potentially hospitalized for four to six weeks, followed by an estimated 100-day stay at Ronald McDonald House. The prognosis makes it tricky to hold onto a job or schedule leave time.
"I'm only getting 30 hours a week, 10-hour days, but that's my fault because I can only work Friday, Saturday and Sunday because the other days I'm saving family medical leave for the bone marrow transplant," she said.
Despite all this, Sarah has not questioned why any of this is happening to her.
She already knows the answer.
"Because God has a plan," she says confidently. "I just know that."
She asked her mom to share the story behind the words, saying Sandy can tell it better.
It was shortly after the diagnosis, Sandy said, and her daughter was on some medications for pain and nausea.
"She was having a really hard time sleeping through the night and she'd only been in for about three or four days, and I asked them to give her something to sleep," Sandy recalled. "I was sitting there holding her hand and she's looking off at the wall. I could tell she was asleep talking to me and she says, 'Mom, do you see that man over there in the corner?' I said, 'No, Sarah, I don't see a man. Who is it?'"
"She said, 'It's Jesus.' I said, 'What's He doing there?' She said, 'He's sitting there and He told me that He wasn't leaving until everything was OK.'"
Then Sarah referenced a second man being in the room, causing Sandy to ask who that was.
"(Sarah) said, 'It's the devil -- why do you think God's over here watching over me?'" Sandy explained. "And the next morning when she got up, I said, 'Sarah, who was in your room last night?' She said, 'God -- He was watching over me.' And she told me He wasn't leaving until she got better.
"Ever since then, she just says God has a plan. And we've decided the plan is, she's got leukemia because she's always wanted to be a nurse and He's (God is) training her for something big."
For the time being, the focus is for the treatments to work so Sarah can get back on track for the transplant.
As siblings, Sarah and Savannah are as different as night and day but the bond between the two is rock solid and the 13-year-old Mount Olive Middle student is poised to be a donor when the time comes.
Their dad, John Jernigan, has also returned to the area to support his daughter during her cancer battle.
Sarah's wish list is very short, centered mostly around helping her family through the coming days.
"Just pray," she asked. "And please go to the GoFundMe page."