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Cancer changes Christmas for local families

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By Tracy Harris

The holidays are a time to spend with loved ones and be thankful for what we have. The Era featured two remarkable people in recent weeks, and we are grateful to have shared their stories with our readers. As 2011 draws to a close, here’s an update on Craig Merimee and Hayli Nobles — two people in very different situations this holiday season. Craig, a 33-year-old father of three, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer almost 15 months ago.

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Despite the diagnosis, Craig recalled friends and family who successfully battled cancer and believed he could fight it too.

While his wife called family and friends, Craig Googled “pancreatic cancer” on his smartphone from the hospital bed.

When he read only 6 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive more than 5 years, he turned off his phone and prayed with the hospital chaplain.

The disease is the fourth most-common cause of cancer death, with an estimated 44,000 diagnosed in the United States this year. But only 1.4 percent of those patients are younger than 40.

In early December, Craig opted out of future chemotherapy treatments because of the harsh side effects. A Hosparus nurse now visits weekly.

When Craig made the decision to discontinue chemotherapy, his wife, Michelle, posted about it on the family’s blog “The Merimee’s Journey.”

“God can’t have him until after (daughter) Emily’s birthday or Christmas, my heart can’t handle that,” she wrote. “I need a year to prepare for Christmas without him so please pray for more time.”

On Dec. 20, Michelle posted that the family is optimistic Merimee will be around for Christmas and that he’s feeling OK. They’re hoping he’ll make it to his birthday in January.

As Craig battles cancer, 2-year-old Hayli scored a major victory against hers earlier this month. She was diagnosed last Christmas eve with actute myleoid leukemia, a common type of leukemia among adults but rare for children. About 500 children are diagnosed with AML each year.

Hayli’s parents, Mike and Amanda, made the difficult decision to leave friends and family behind and pursue treatment at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

Doctors at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville encouraged the Nobles to go to St. Jude, where there are several ongoing clinical trials for AML. Hayli underwent chemotherapy and an experimental treatment that transplanted some of Amanda’s immune systems into Hayli.

For eight months, the family lived at St. Jude. Grandparents visited frequently, and Amanda’s friends surprised her for her birthday.

St. Jude asked the family to be part of this year’s Thanksgiving campaign, and Hayli can be seen in magazines, on billboards and on television alongside Jennifer Anniston. Amanda is in video versions talking to Anniston, star of the sitcom “Friends.”

In August, the family returned home to La Grange, where Hayli is thriving.

“She’s blossoming,” said Julie Wahl, Amanda’s mom. “And that makes a grandma happy.”

On Dec. 1, the family returned to St. Jude for Hayli’s first check-up appointment. While considered in full remission, Mike said the check-up would be a major milestone in Hayli’s recovery.

Though not all the results are back yet, Hayli’s minimal residual disease test came back negative. The test measures the number of leukamic cells that remain in the body, and those cells are a major cause of relapse.

“She is doing amazing and so happy and healthy,” Amanda said. 

The Nobles spent last Christmas in the hospital and are thrilled to have spent Hayli’s second Christmas at home.