Jenelle “Nelly” Camara

Laura Eaton describes her 17 year-old daughter Jenelle – or “Nelly” as she most often goes by – as a typically active teen; a devoted, enthusiastic cheerleader who enjoys being with friends and family, listening to music, dancing, and of course, shopping.

The morning January 1, 2014 was anything but typical.

“Nelly woke up that morning and couldn’t walk,” Laura recalls, a Fall River mother of three. “My husband and I rushed her to the emergency room, and after eight hours the MRI showed Nelly had a tumor the size of a clementine wrapped around her spinal cord.”

Nelly was immediately admitted to Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI, undergoing a series of tests and procedures that would mark the beginning of a grueling 14-month journey, laced with surgeries, bone marrow spinal taps, CAT scans and intense rounds of chemotherapy. Due to the complexities and location of the tumor, the family endured a year of uncertainty as Nelly’s biopsy was sent around the world to specialists, hoping to uncover an increasingly elusive diagnosis.

“By March the tumor had began to grow again, and our second and third opinions were not bringing any clarity,” recalls Laura, a Case Manager in her hometown on an extended family medical leave.

After undergoing a lumbar endoscopy on December 26, 2014 – pushed back a day so the family could celebrate Christmas together – a biopsy was sent to New York’s Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in late-January, where a definitive cancer diagnosis was made: Ewing’s Sarcoma.

While gaining clarity on Nelly’s illness relieved some of the uncertainty, the family almost instantly received more bad news: Laura’s husband Joshua – a local technician – was informed his company would be relocating, leaving him without a job within a year. With financial hardships approaching, every dollar and expense was magnified.

Earlier in 2014, Laura had contacted the Joe Andruzzi Foundation (JAF) and was approved to receive a financial assistant grant to assist with the family’s gas and electric bills.

“It takes so much pressure off, especially for a family of five,” says Laura. “To even keep my house warm with a winter like this can cost between $400 and $500 a month, which is frustrating in difficult situations. But what the Foundation provides is amazing – it’s so touching.”

When the New England Revolution sponsored an (Up)Beat Outing last September – donating tickets to JAF cancer patient and families – Nelly’s family and the Andruzzis got a chance to meet for the first time. Nelly, her parents, and little sisters enjoyed a much needed break from the anxieties of treatment, and Joe and Jen’s oldest children, Hunter and Breanna, went on to strike up a close friendship with Nelly.

Just last week, Laura and her daughter were awaiting treatment in Hasbro Children's Hospital’s Izzy Family Room when a few familiar faces entered. Joe, Jen, Hunter and Breanna had come to surprise Nelly a few days before her 17th birthday, bringing along Patriots championship gear and Super Bowl rings to try on.

“She was starting a tough chemo cycle that day, and when they walked in the room Nelly’s eyes lit up,” Laura remembers. “To have people supporting you that have lived through it as a family before, and who are telling you ‘you’re going to fight through this’ – it means more than anything to me.”

“That, and the man upstairs, is what gets us through it.”

The Fall River community has also been an incredible support system for the family to lean on, with close friends setting up fundraisers and establishing PO Boxes for well-wishers to send words of encouragement for Nelly.

The road ahead will be challenging for Nelly, who is in the midst of a 36-week chemotherapy cycle, but the 17-year old is attacking her disease with the same enthusiasm and positivity that made her a star cheerleader.

Refusing to let the disease interrupt her life, Nelly is being tutored at home during her extended absence from school, and she decided to fully shave her head at the first sign of patching. She also recently overcame her fear of missing the prom – she’ll be attending this spring with her close friend and supporter, Hunter Andruzzi.

Nelly’s journey is a source of inspiration from which all patient families can draw from, and we wish her the best of luck as she continues to (Up)Beat Cancer.

UPDATE: On Saturday, November 21, 2015, Jenelle “Nelly’ Camara – a JAF patient recipient and incredible upbeat ambassador – passed away at the young age of 17. Nelly, a beloved cheerleader and softball player at Durfee High School in Fall River, MA, had been battling Ewing's sarcoma since January 2014. Nelly was such a bright light for so many people in her life, and we hope you will join us in sending thoughts and prayers to her family in this difficult time.