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"She's been stronger than all of us" — Perham teenager fights cancer head-on

In early 2022, Perham High School's Amelia Hill was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoblastic lymphoma. The fight has been rough, but she and her family are making it through.

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Amelia Hill was diagnosed with stage four lymphoblastic lymphoma in early 2022.
Contributed / Kelly Winkels
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PERHAM — Cancer is completely life-changing for anyone, but it's particularly uprooting for kids. Amelia Hill, 16, of Perham High School has been experiencing these difficult changes since she was diagnosed with stage four lymphoblastic lymphoma in early 2022.

"(Amelia is) so tough," said Kelly Winkels, Hill's mother, who lives with her partner James Tuman in Perham. "There's been a couple of days when shes had a little bit of a break, but she's just so, so tough — so strong."

It all started when Amelia started finding lumps throughout her body. Originally, doctors attributed these to a condition known to run in her father's, Nick Hill, side of the family. She was also having breathing problems, but, she'd also recently recovered from COVID-19. The family attributed those symptoms to her recent illness.

Then, on Feb. 16, everything changed. With the discovery of another lump, the doctors started to put together the symptoms. They scheduled her for an ultrasound, which turned into an emergency CT scan.

"(After the scan) I dropped Amelia off at school, and that's when we got the call — almost like 45 minutes after we left the doctor's appointment," Winkels recalled. "It was really scary — just the weirdest phone call. They basically said, 'Pack yourself a small bag and pack your daughter a small bag, but don't take a lot of time to do that. You need to get to Sanford Medical in Fargo as soon as possible.'"

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So, in a rush, Winkels just packed herself a phone charger, a toothbrush and a few outfits for herself and Amelia. She also had to make several phone calls to her job at the Brew and family members. Many of those phone calls are a blur to her due to the panic.

"I called Amelia's stepmom, Nikki (Nick Hill's wife)," Winkels recalled. "We're a close family. She knew about the ultrasound and everything that morning. I don't remember what I said, but she said she'll never forget that call."

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James Tuman and Kelly Winkels, Amelia's family in Perham, sit together outside of their home.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

The next thing she knew, she was picking up Amelia from Perham High School in the snow. Terrified, Amelia called her father crying, and they began their drive to Fargo.

Worried about Amelia's breathing, what she could do in the car was very limited. Doctors told them she couldn't even lay down. Amelia and Winkels didn't have a diagnosis, and they hadn't seen the CT scan yet either. That car ride was filled with scary unknowns.

When Winkels and Amelia finally made it to Fargo, they were in the hospital for about two weeks. The first four days were spent testing non-stop before giving her the diagnosis of stage four lymphoblastic lymphoma. According to Winkels, this is a very rare type of cancer that originally started forming in Amelia's lymph nodes. Amelia also had to be on oxygen for a lot of her stay due to difficulties breathing.

"And then when we saw the CT scan, it was really, really scary," Winkels said. "They showed (a scan of) an average 15-year-old girl on this side, and then they showed Amelia's scan on this side. It basically goes from the head down to the toes, and everything that was abnormal was white on the screen… She had a really big, big mass that kind of went down between her sternum and wrapped around her back, so she's had a lot of back problems and a lot of nerve problems around there."

From there, months of treatments began. From surgeries to IV treatments to lumbar punctures to radiation to chemotherapy — it has been a long process for Amelia and her family. Her father and stepmom, Nick and Nikki Hill, live in Fargo where she is receiving her treatments, so Winkels and her have plenty of family nearby to help out.

The Perham community has also been very helpful and supportive, Winkels said. The Brew, where she works, has been flexible and understanding with her need for time off. They even put on a fundraiser for Amelia. The community has also raised $10,000 toward her GoFundMe, with 134 total donors.

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"Thank you to everybody who's kept us in their thoughts and prayers and those who reached out to help us in any way," Winkels said, telling the community that everything helps. "Even if that just means keeping us in their thoughts."

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Biopsies of the mediastinal mass recently showed dead tissue, which, according to Winkels, is great news.
Contributed / Kelly Winkels

Recently, Amelia and her family received some good news. Recent biopsies of the mediastinal mass are all showing necrotic tissue, which means dead tissue. While they aren't yet using the term "remission," and still have another round of chemotherapy, this shows that the treatment is helping her body. In a few weeks, she'll get a PET scan before hopefully heading to the University of Minnesota Fairview Hospital to get a bone marrow transplant.

"That was almost the first time we had good news this whole journey," Winkels said. "I just felt like, 'Oh finally.' We kind of felt in limbo for a while."

This journey has been tough on Amelia and her family, but they haven't lost hope. Winkels keeps busy, and Tuman — her partner — is there by her side every step of the way. Amelia has also kept strong herself with her whole family there to support her. She loves to spend her time making TikToks and bracelets, and when she's not staying with Winkels, they FaceTime each other almost every night.

"She's been stronger than all of us," Winkels said. "I couldn't even leave the hospital room because I couldn't stop crying. And I mean, her grandparents and everybody were just messes. It was so scary, and she was like, 'You guys, stop crying.'"

While things are now looking up for Amelia and her family, they could still use all the help they can get. To donate to Amelia's treatment, you can visit her GoFundMe at gofundme.com/f/gyzgk-support-for-amelia .

Winkels and Tuman are also in the process of renovating their house. There currently isn't an accessible bedroom ready for Amelia when she's able to move back to Perham. Because of her illness and treatments, she tires easily and can't walk far, so they need to get a space for her as soon as possible.

"We would really love the help from the community to help us figure this out," Winkels said. "It's crucial that we do it as fast as we can."

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If any contractors or experts are able to assist them at all, reach out to them at kelwinkels@gmail.com.

To stay updated on Amelia's fight against cancer, visit her Caring Bridge page at caringbridge.org/public/ameliahill06 .

"I want to thank my work and everybody who went to the benefit there," Winkels said. "People were so giving, and they continue to be giving. This is just a really amazing community."

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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