Kiersten Dickson’s short life was packed with purpose.
She deeply loved family and friends. She soaked up knowledge. She played with passion and precision on the soccer field. She did not meander.
That stayed true even when, at 19, she was diagnosed with a deadly illness. Kiersten set the direction in which lung cancer would take her. She found purpose in fighting the disease for herself and for others.
Small cell lung cancer sneaked up on Kiersten. She was not a smoker. There was no genetic history of the disease in her family. When, in January 2014, she returned from a trip to Miami with what seemed to be a cold, nobody thought much about it.
But then the cold wouldn’t go away. Doctors were hesitant about doing a chest X-ray because they didn’t want to expose such a young patient to potentially harmful radiation. They prescribed antibiotics and other medications, but the symptoms continued. Finally, a doctor did an X-ray and could see a cloudy mass in her lungs.
On May 5, 2014, Kiersten, a student at Georgia State University, took a final exam for her history class. (She ultimately earned a 3.8 GPA for the semester.) Then she went to get the CT scan. “The cancer was everywhere. She was already at Stage 4,” recalls her father, John Dickson.
Kiersten checked into Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She immediately began chemotherapy and within two weeks the cancerous growths invading her body had shrunk by 50%.
By shrinking the tumors, doctors were able to extend Kiersten’s life and make her more comfortable. If she had not begun treatment when she did, the growths probably would have blocked her airways or disrupted the function of her heart and killed her within a few weeks. So, chemotherapy bought Kiersten and her family some time. But it did not promise a cure.
That was the point at which Kiersten determined her purpose as a person living with, and dying from, a rare disease that nobody could have imagined would strike her. She pledged to work for better outcomes for those diagnosed with cancer.
Kiersten was especially touched by the all of the younger kids she met during her treatments at Children’s Healthcare. She felt that it was her mission to find a way to help stop this horrible disease from robbing the lives of so many innocent children.
Kiersten underwent experimental immunotherapy treatments that helped doctors better understand their efficacy. She lent her support and her story to Georgia Tech researchers applying for grant funding to improve pediatric cancer treatments. She warned anyone who would listen about the risks of lung cancer — especially among improbable victims. She talked to groups of college students. She spoke at Rotary Club meetings.
Through it all, Kiersten stayed true to who she was. She went to class. She played soccer whenever she could. She hung out with friends, traveled and cracked a lot of jokes. “Kiersten’s Instagram tagline had always been ‘Living life to the fullest,’ but after she was diagnosed, she really amped it up,” John says. “She set that sense of positivity for us. She showed us how she wanted us to be.”
On July 22, three days before her 21st birthday, Kiersten passed away. Her parents, John and Shawn, married for 22years, were there with Kiersten when she died, as they had been when her life began. “Right as she went, a peace came over me and Shawn,” John says. “We felt, ‘This is not the end.’”
On Kiersten’s birthday, more than 120 people turned out for a wake in her honor at Olde Blind Dog Irish pub in Milton. The next day, more than 600 attended her memorial service.
Today, Kiersten’s tumors still are being studied by cancer researchers searching for targeted treatments to combat her rare disease. Her corneas live on in the eyes of a man who was losing his vision and now can see. “She got to decide what her legacy was going to be,” her father says.
Her parents continue Kiersten’s mission by giving educational talks about detecting and treating lung cancer as well as pediatric cancer and by donating and raising funds for cancer awareness, research and treatment. “I want to keep people from joining my club of parents who lose a kid,” John says.
To formalize fundraising efforts and to memorialize Kiersten, John, Shawn and Erin have started the Kiersten Dickson Memorial Cancer Research Fund and have teamed up with St. Baldrick’s Foundation, through a memorial Hero Fund named after her favorite J.R.R. Tolkien quote: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”. Through both Funds, the family will donate money to St. Baldrick’s and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments for Pediatric Cancers.
John, Shawn and their 16-year-old daughter Erin continue to take trips to places Kiersten loved or wanted to go, fulfilling her wish that they pack a “travel box” containing a scoop of her ashes and sprinkle a few ashes at each destination. And every time they go out to dinner, they try someplace new.
“What I learned — what Kiersten taught me — is life is much more precious and much more fragile than I ever realized. You have to seize the moment. Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t worry too much about the future. And no matter what you’re going through, always care for other people,” John says. “I can only aspire to do a portion of what Kiersten did in her 20 years.”
Donations made to the Not All Who Wander are Lost Fund have generously supported a St. Baldrick’s Fellow Grant for Corey Falcon M.D. Dr. Falcon is researching using CAR-T cell immunotherapy to treat leukemia at the University of Alabama at Birmingham which is affiliated with Children's of Alabama.
Donations given to the Not All Who Wander Are Lost Fund go directly to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to fund lifesaving childhood cancer research around the world. The Foundation is guided by a Scientific Advisory Committee, comprised of leading experts in the childhood cancer community, to ensure that every dollar makes the greatest impact for kids with cancer.
These people make us smile - they’re the doers and money-raisers on behalf of the Not All Who Wander Are Lost Fund. They’re shaving their heads, hosting events, starting fundraisers and more to make childhood cancer research possible.
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