After Turner had returned to school, Louis and Donna Fordham drove to Chattanooga to meet with Dr. Manoo Bhakta, the chief of pediatric oncology at TC Thompson Children's Hospital to discuss the results of their daughter's blood test. The Fordham's worst fears were confirmed. The diagnosis: Leukemia. But this was not the first time the Fordhams had received this news. Turner had relapsed.
Back in Athens, Turner and Jordan Dodd, her boyfriend of four years sat on the tailgate of his red Toyota pick up truck waiting for the phone call. Her parents had told her that if the blood work revealed a relapse, they would drive from Chattanooga to get her.
The phone rang. "We're coming to Athens." Shock coursed through Turner's body. The news was devastating. After getting a taste of college, Turner's leukemia was back. "It just...it was scary," her father said of the second diagnosis. "As hard as the first one was, this one was 10 times harder."
What resembled a bug bite suddenly emerged on Turner's shin just before her Thursday evening softball game. Even as a seventh grader, Turner pushed herself, but after limping around the bases she got into the car with her mother Donna. "My other leg hurts now," she complained. A dark red rash with a blue tint was now visible on both of Turner's legs. Her parents took her to the pediatrician to be checked out. He found that her bones were bruised and it was affecting her all the way up to her skin, a red flag.
A few days later, at 6:30 in the morning, Louis Fordham stood in the kitchen of their Tunnel Hill home drinking a cup of coffee.
The phone rang and he answered.
"We need to have Turner in the office when we open," the nurse practitioner said. "Tom what's going on?"
"Louis I think Turner has leukemia."
Turner and Louis went to the clinic in Dalton to have some tests done. Turner was a shy, independent seventh grader who loved sports and was passionate about school. She waited patiently as the tests were completed. The pediatrician pulled Louis out of the exam room. "Louis we need you to take Turner up to TC Thompsons up in Chattanooga right now. They're expecting you."
"What's going on?"
"We think she has leukemia."
With his eyes bloodshot Louis returned to the exam room to tell his daughter that they would go to Chattanooga so she can have more tests.
Turner, being a pleaser, without hesitation said, "OK."
During the 20-minute drive back to their home Louis looked at Turner in the back seat. "Sweetie, I need to tell you something," he said slowly. "They think you have leukemia." "What does that mean?" A confused 11-year-old waited for her father to offer an explanation.
Leukemia is a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. It can be fatal but since the doctors caught it early Turner would be fine after chemotherapy treatments. She began to cry but quickly composed herself.
The Fordhams drove to Chattanooga where they met Dr. Bhakta. After looking over the blood work, he spoke directly to Turner.
"Turner you have leukemia." Tears streamed down the Fordhams faces when they received the diagnosis. "I don't want you to worry, this disease is very curable and we're going to take care of you and everything is going to be fine," said Dr. Bhakta to a dry eyed Turner.
Turner bravely spoke up, "Mom and Dad let's not cry anymore, Dr. Bhakta said it's going to be OK and he's going to take care of me."
In September of her seventh grade year Turner was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. A few days later, everything started to set in. A port was inserted under her skin to allow for easy IV access and Turner began chemotherapy.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia or ALL is a blood and bone marrow cancer. The word acute means that the leukemia can progress quickly and if it is left untreated can be fatal within a few months. When children contract this disease, the symptoms are difficult to distinguish. Bruising and rashes are common but usually never in the same place.
ALL is the most common type of cancer in children but when Turner was diagnosed she was automatically placed under the high-risk category. According to Dr. Bhakta, risk categories are based on years of statistics and treatment experiments. Blood tests, which count the amount of white blood cells in the body, are used to diagnose leukemia. A normal white blood count is typically between 5,000 and 15,000 cells. When a standard risk patient is initially diagnosed their WBC count is less than 50,000 whereas a high-risk patient would have a WBC count of over 50,000 or be over the age of 10. Today, patients over age 13 are labeled as "very high risk."
Labeling patients as very high risk doesn't meant that their chance of survival is lower. It is possible that they may have up to an 80 percent chance of a cure depending on factors such as genetics and initial response to chemotherapy.
People with ALL do not become symptomatic until they have 100 billion to a trillion leukemic cells in their blood. By the time a correct diagnosis is given, the disease has probably been present for a few months. Usually patients seek medical attention and the leukemia is incorrectly identified as an illness such as an iron deficiency, strep, or mononucleosis.
Dr. Martin Johnston, the director of hematology and oncology at the Children's Hospital at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah says, "The increase in white blood cells at diagnosis is because the leukemia cells have 'spilled' out of the bone marrow and into the blood."
Turner was assigned a homebound professor to come to her house weekly to help her with her schoolwork for the rest of seventh grade and half of eighth. Missing out on so much of middle school was devastating. "I missed not being able to play sports. I missed not being able to see my friends. The biggest thing was you just didn't feel normal," she recalls now.
When she started school again, she had been gone for a year and a half. She felt behind and lost. "It really took me some time to accept that and kind of start over." Her excitement for high school began to build. Several middle schools would fuse together to form a ninth grade class with fresh faces and Turner felt like she could finally start over.
It was not until her freshman year of high school that Turner had been around so many people her age with her short hair. In the small community of Dalton everyone knew her story. "I felt like a lot of people knew me and knew about me and so kind of the first few months of high school I almost felt like people were too nervous to come up to me and speak with me and talk with me for fear that would say the wrong thing."
Every day ninth grade Geometry, the class clown, Jordan Dodd would ask the girl with short red hair for a pencil. Being the prepared student she was, Turner would lend him a new pencil almost every day. "At first it was kind of annoying but then it got cute," she recalls.
"I actually needed a pencil," Jordan told me. "I could have asked anyone else, but I thought I'd ask the pretty girl behind me, so that was my excuse for talking to her."
The first time Jordan had seen Turner was the summer before high school at a pool party. She had just finished treatments and her hair was beginning to grow back after multiple rounds of chemotherapy. "This sounds so cliché I know but I knew right then and there I was like oh my goodness this is the most beautiful girl I've ever seen. I remember looking at her and I swear to this day and I'll stand by that story, she looked back at me but she doesn't remember that moment."
A few weeks after he asked her to the Sweetheart dance, Jordan and Turner started dating. Throughout high school Jordan helped Turner come out of her shell and Turner slowly transformed him from a Tennessee Volunteers fan to a Georgia Bulldog. After high school, they both enrolled at UGA. For Turner Fordham, it seemed like she was finally back on track. Then came the relapse. "Relapse almost makes you feel like cancer never goes away, that there's always that chance. And for it to come back after four years scares you in a way that it didn't before," says her father, Louis.
Turner relapsed four and a half years after her last treatment. According to Dr. Johnston, this is a rare occurrence that is seen in fewer than 2 percent of patients.
When Turner received the news of her relapse she was stunned. "I was just literally frozen," she said.
The Fordhams met with Dr. Bhakta after receiving the second diagnosis but this time his confidence had waned. With the first diagnosis, there was never any doubt that Turner was going to get through it. This time was different. For patients who relapse so far out, treatment plans are limited. "It was initially very, very devastating and scary because you gotta step back and look at the numbers too. A relapse that late in the game...there's not a very strong likelihood of success," Jordan said. Although it was emotional and scary Turner stayed strong. "She didn't let that deter her spirit, her fight, her drive, at all. She was initially devastated but then she got right back in to Turner mode. It only lasted for about a week and then she was ready to take it on again."
Turner had to be admitted that weekend. Once again, school had to be put on hold but she was adamant about continuing classes at Dalton State so she would not fall behind.
Without being asked Jordan withdrew from UGA and returned home along with Turner. "I didn't hesitate for a second to go back with her. It wasn't a hard decision for me to make at all," he says. "There was no other place I'd rather be than by her side."
After Turner returned, Dr. Bhakta called Louis to ask if he could come to their home and discuss treatment options with the Fordhams. The next day he walked into the Fordhams house smiling. He had found a new protocol out of the United Kingdom with a much higher success rate. Although Turner would be the first of his patients to use the new drugs the Fordhams agreed immediately and once again, Turner began treatment.
Over the next few months doctors appointments and extended stays in the hospital became routine. Any time her fever reached 101, Turner had to go to the hospital. Each time, before they left she would shower, get dressed and put on make up. "My nurses and doctors would always tease me," she says. "I always looked presentable coming into the office even when I knew I was coming to just lay in a bed to sleep all day."
The side effects of chemotherapy were even worse the second time around. Seeing little kids running around the hospital after three doses of chemo made Turner feel confused as to why she was so sick. She later learned that chemo is harder on your body the older you get. Again, she felt like she was missing out.
After one semester home, Turner returned to the University of Georgia. Her head was wrapped in a scarf to cover her hair loss but she was still the same Turner, strong, kind, passionate and put together. While she was away, her Alpha Omicron Pi sisters organized a benefit concert called Turn it Up for Turner with all the proceeds going to the Fordham family to help them pay for medical expenses. Turner couldn't believe the amount of support she received. "I don't love so much attention on me but it's been really special," she says. The first concert in 2012, raised almost $3,000 and since then there has been one each year with the Fordhams now donating the money to others in need.
Throughout her treatment, her father kept a blog so that Turner's friends and family could follow her progress. In a post a year after she was diagnosed for a second time he mentions that when asked how she is doing Turner will always say that she is good but only when he asks how her body feels will she give him a true answer. He writes, "The bottom line is she has chosen not to deal with her situation but rather to force it to deal with her."
In 2014, nearly 53,000 Americans were diagnosed with leukemia. On August 5, 2014, while Turner was at a routine checkup, Jordan proposed.
It was the first time anyone had every proposed in the clinic. Jordan Dodd got down on one knee with a gaggle of doctors and nurses cheering him on. He placed the ring on his high school sweetheart's finger as tears of joy ran down her cheeks. The clinic where Turner had spent almost 10 years getting checkups and tests was that last place she would have expected.
On the clinic bed a book was open to the first page where Jordan had written an entry.
"Chapter 1: She said Yes! After much anticipation, the day we've been waiting for has finally arrived. But, before we can begin writing our future together, I have to make an entry of my own.
Turner, I promise that no matter what challenges life may bring, there are none too great for our love to over come. I promise always to support your dreams, to praise your accomplishments, to share in your suffering, and above all else; I promise not a single day will pass that you aren't loved beyond measure. Today is where our book begins...the rest is still unwritten."
Today Turner sits in a purple rolling chair. Blue curtains cover her closet. An antique dresser sits in the corner. Photos and quotes adorn her walls. A painted ceramic frame from a Valentine's Day spent with Jordan reads, "All you need is love." Her short red hair is styled and her makeup is done. She looks like a typical college girl dressed in a large T-shirt, her sorority letters Alpha Omicron Pi displayed on the front pocket, yoga pants and pink and blue running shoes. She has a soft voice with a hint of a Southern twang. In her life skinny vanilla lattes from Jittery Joe's are a must and every Thursday night is reserved for the TV show "Scandal." On May 8, 2015, Turner will graduate on time from the University of Georgia with a business marketing degree. After having been together for 7 years, she will marry Jordan on June 13.
Having cancer twice did not leave a negative mark on Turner. Her optimism is still ever present and she continues to see the good in everything. "I always try to remind myself that things are done for you and not to you," she says.