The lives of a local family were upended just over a month ago, when a pregnant 33-year-old mother of two was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive form of brain cancer.
As 3-year-old Carter and 4-year-old Landon played with their cousins on Tuesday morning, their mother, Jessica Pierson, was at her 25-week pregnancy check — along with radiation treatment.
How it all changed
Pierson is the youngest of three siblings, all of whom have grown up in the Santa Clarita Valley.
About two months ago, the Piersons had just celebrated their gender reveal, learning they had their third boy on the way, and Pierson’s oldest sibling, Tommy Clemente, had just dropped off his children’s old baby clothes and toys for his new nephew-to-be — everything was wonderful, Clemente said.
Then, Pierson began experiencing some unusual symptoms, forgetting things and noticing a slight droop on the right side of her mouth, but chalked it up to pregnancy.
“(She thought) it felt like a little more than that, but every pregnancy is different,” Clemente said. “These things can happen in a pregnancy.”
It was only a few weeks ago while at work that she realized something was seriously wrong.
“My sister’s the type who always had beautiful penmanship,” Clemente added. “She was writing something down, and she all of a sudden couldn’t recognize her writing — it turned to complete scribbles. She was concentrating and was like, ‘I don’t feel right.’”
Pierson was hospitalized as the first round of tests were conducted, though doctors could not pinpoint the cause with the limited scope of tests that could be conducted during the pregnancy.
Weeks passed as Pierson’s symptoms grew worse, and she was referred to specialists at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, who told her more extensive tests were needed.
“It was moving so fast,” Clemente said, adding that it was a risky high-contrast MRI that found an undiscovered tumor. “They went back and looked at the original MRI (conducted without contrast), and they were able to see where the tumor was. From the prior MRI, it went from 15 to 30 millimeters, so it doubled in size in less than three weeks.”
A biopsy surgery found that the tumor was a glioblastoma, too deep in Pierson’s brain to surgically remove.
Instead, doctors came up with a plan: radiation until Pierson’s pregnancy reached 26 weeks, when doctors would deliver her baby boy so she could begin chemotherapy and other treatments.
“Right now, every day of the week she has radiation,” Clemente said Tuesday. “We’re supposed to find out today when she’s going to deliver the baby.”
The quick progression of the disease
“She was perfectly fine and healthy, and it just went so fast,” Clemente said.
What began as fogginess and a bit of trouble with her hand quickly progressed to extreme muscle weakness, including loss of function on her right side, along with aphasia, which affects her ability to speak, leaving her unable to think of common words, like “cup” or even “love.”
“Her and her family moved back in with my parents because she needs round-the-clock help,” Clemente said. “She’s got a long fight ahead of her, and the baby’s gonna have a long fight.”
Delivering so soon classifies the baby as an “extreme preemie,” and he’ll likely have to be in the neonatal intensive care unit for nearly five months after birth.
Her sons know something is wrong, but are too young to really understand the situation.
“They’re worried because though they’re little kids, they pick up on everything,” Clemente added. “It’s one of those things where everyone feels helpless.”
The generous support
Earlier this week, Clemente started a GoFundMe for his sister, hoping to raise funds to pay the mounting medical bills, as well as for living expenses and care for Pierson and her family. Just two days after its creation, it had raised nearly $24,000 Tuesday.
“When we first started the GoFundMe, within 10 hours, the amount of people that donated and commented and reached out, she can’t really communicate it, but she started crying when I told her,” Clemente said, referring to his sister.
“The fact that so many people care,” Clemente added as he began to cry himself.
Clemente responds to each and every message or donation, amazed at the generosity of the community and those the family has known through the years.
“It’s a lot, it’s emotional,” he added. “I haven’t cried this much in the last 30 years than I’ve done in the last three weeks.”
For Clemente and the family, the messages mean the world to them, but more so to Pierson.
“Getting that kind of humongous support has been a comfort to Jessica,” Clemente said. “The messages are words of encouragement to her.”