Brave Teen Ayla Gilman Battles Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma

By Monique M. Demopoulos | Aug 21, 2019

Stafford Township — Ayla Gilman of Manahawkin has not had the sweetest 16. Just after Easter, she became severely ill. When her lymph nodes swelled significantly, her mother, Adrienne Allikmaa-Gilman, rushed her to the hospital, where she received a devastating diagnosis: Stage 3 Hodgkins lymphoma. She would need to begin chemotherapy immediately to optimize her chances of overcoming this disease.

Prior to the discouraging diagnosis, Ayla was a typical teenage girl. Like her older brother Aaron and younger brother Aedan, she was a driven and active soccer athlete. She also enjoyed photography and interior design. Like any other teenager, she appreciates time spent with her family and her boyfriend. She loves school and enjoys occasionally going out to eat and to the movies.

“I wanted to be in school as much as I could,” Ayla explained. “When school starts this year, I’m going. I don’t care what anyone says!” This fall, Ayla will enter her senior year at Southern Regional High School and is adamant about being present for the experience. She attended school every day until she started chemotherapy, just one day after she danced the night away at her junior prom. “Prom was a lot of fun,” said Ayla, who celebrated the evening with her boyfriend, Sam Iacoves of Manahawkin.

According to Adrienne, Ayla surprised physicians with her fearless determination. When asked her biggest fear regarding cancer and chemotherapy, she responded, “That’s easy. I’m worried my hair won’t grow back.” She understands this experience as a major obstacle, but it’s certainly not unconquerable. “I have to deal with a few months of feeling crappy, and then I’ll be fine,” she asserted.

Of course, treatment for stage 3 cancer is an exhausting process, not only for the patient, but also for her family. As Adrienne accounted, “First we had to go to New York City to have fertility treatment to prevent Ayla from becoming sterile with the chemo.” She continued, “Then there’s chemo. She has three days of chemo, and then I have to give her a shot for bone marrow the next day. Then she is home for two days, and we have to go back for a day stay. We go in for about five hours so they can give her a double dose of one of her chemo medications. Then in between all that, there’s bloodwork and PET scans and whatever other appointments.”

Adrienne is on hiatus from both of her careers, in real estate and massage therapy, as she is a single mother attending to her daughter’s needs every day. She expressed sincere gratitude for the support she has received. “David’s Dream & Believe were the first ones to help us, thank God. They paid our mortgage for us because I couldn’t go to work.” Adrienne told Steve Crisalli of David’s Dream & Believe that she would be happy to help with their events as a gesture of gratitude. “Steve told me, ‘Just get through this first,’ but I will definitely be involved with this foundation once we are through with our little fight.”

Furthermore, Ayla acknowledged immeasurable appreciation for the support from her boyfriend. “Sam has done a lot for me. He has been my best friend since I was in fourth grade.”

Adrienne agreed, “Sam has been her rock. I stay with her during the day for her chemo treatments. Then I leave and he stays the nights with her. That has been the drill from Easter on. He truly has been here a lot for her.”

Between treatments, Ayla has to rest and recuperate.

“Once treatments are done, then it’s a matter of whether she is going to run a fever or if she will be vomiting violently,” said Adrienne. “We never know what each day is going to bring.” Adrienne said she and Ayla meet each day ready and willing to take whatever challenge presents itself. “Every day we wake up in the morning and go, ‘OK, what’s today got in store for us?”

Ayla said the experience has strengthened her connection with her mother. “We definitely have a stronger bond now than we did a year ago,” she said.

“During the rounds, I usually feel really tired and nauseous,” said Ayla. “But when I go home, I try to go out and do things with my family or my boyfriend. I try not to just stay in my room all the time.”

She just finished her fourth round of chemo this week and is trying not to let the condition hold her back from living a normal life. “This past Friday was our alumni game at Southern. I’ve been playing soccer for so long, I know everyone there. My brother plays, too. We ran the concession stand, and there were donations. I got to see all my friends. It was really fun.”

Adrienne is staying active between treatments as well. “Yoga and ballroom dancing is the only way I get through this.” Adrienne practices yoga every morning at 5:30 at Hot or Not Yoga in Manahawkin. She spends the weekends dancing at Zen Ballroom in Toms River. “I start my days with breathing and end my weekends with laughter. It’s how I keep my sanity.”

She explained her sons are keeping themselves wrapped up in soccer to maintain some normalcy. “Aiden just had a tournament. He’s trying out for the Olympic Player Development. Aaron is training teams. So they’re just pushing and staying focused.” Obviously determination runs in their family. Ayla intends to return to her passion for soccer as soon as she regains her health.

“It’ll be hard, but I would love to return to soccer,” she said. “I can’t just step onto the field, though. I will have to go to the gym and train before I am ready.” Ayla has proven she is not the type to shy away from challenge. She reiterated, “I’m pretty positive about this. I just want my long hair back,” referring to her once cascading blond locks.

Fortunately, Ayla loves her doctors, and she is responding well to her treatments. However, while her most recent PET scan showed the chemo to be working, they also discovered she will need radiation for the lymph nodes in her chest. Hence, following her fifth round of chemo, she will undergo a special procedure called proton radiation.

Adrienne said, “The goal is for this to be done after radiation, but again, we have to go about it one day at a time. We weren’t prepared for radiation, but we have to cross each bridge as we get to it.” She further affirmed, “The game plan is to be in the clear by October, but we are prepared for whatever! Failure is not an option.”

Adrienne said there are only four places in the United States that perform proton radiation, “and we are lucky to have one here in New Jersey.” However, the radiation is a $15,000 out-of-network procedure and has already been denied by their insurance company.

In order to raise money for this critical treatment, Adrienne is hosting a fundraiser on Sept. 7 from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Stafford Township Firehouse at 133 Stafford Ave. in Manahawkin. It will be a dinner-dance including a DJ, raffles, prizes and a silent auction. The cost is $30 per person. Anyone interested in attending may contact Adrienne at 609-618-0588 or adrienneallikmaa@gmail.com.

Donors may also support Ayla by contributing to her GoFundMe account (search “Ayla Gilman”). The Gilman family extends their deepest gratitude to those who have donated time, money and resources, and would like to extend advance gratitude to anyone who contributes going forward.

— Monique M. Demopoulos

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