Audra Daniloff was a healthy, active teenager until a form of cancer so deadly it can kill in days almost took her life. It was a long fight, but with determination and a team of committed doctors, this Port High student beat the disease and is back dancing with her friends.
Here she is — front and center in a full-page ad for Aaron Rodgers’ 12 Days of Christmas Benefitting the MACC Fund campaign that appeared Monday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
With her sweet smile, sparkling blue eyes and a flower in her wispy pixie hairdo, 16-year-old Audra Daniloff of Saukville looks the picture of health.
And she is — now.
But for the 55 days — Feb. 4 to March 20 — Audra was in Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, she was fighting a cancer that is so deadly it can kill within eight days if left untreated.
Audra, who had been spiking high fevers for a couple weeks before the cancer was diagnosed, had tested negative for strep and mononucleosis. She was treating the illness as a virus, taking pain and fever medication.
A member of the Port Washington High School varsity dance team, Audra danced through her fever, refusing to miss the state dance competition in La Crosse on Feb. 1. The team took fourth place, qualifying them for nationals, but rather than celebrate, Audra crawled into her hotel bed after the competition and asked teammates to bring her water, lots of water, and slept.
Her dancing, Audra said, “was the work of adrenalin.”
On Feb. 4, she went back to her doctor and had another blood test.
This time, Audra tested positive for mono, but it was her dangerously low white blood cell count that worried physician Ted O’Reilly. He told her father Marc to take her to Children Hospital’s emergency room immediately.
When she arrived at the hospital, Audra was severely dehydrated. She was successfully treated for that, but despite numerous blood platelet transfusions, she “barely had enough white blood cells to rub together,” as one doctor put it.
“To give you an idea, a normal white cell count is around 1,000,” Marc Daniloff said. “Someone with AIDS may have 100. Audra’s was 10.”
Audra was eventually diagnosed with secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiosytosis (HLH), a rare blood disorder sometimes called the PacMan disease because the blood cells go crazy and eat each other.
It was caused by a reaction between a drug she was taking for ulcerative colitis and the Epstein-Barre mono virus, her father said.
But there were too many other symptoms and complications masking the real problem that it took 10 weeks to make the diagnosis. Audra had progressively worse fevers and was unable to swallow because her tonsils and other glands were so swollen.
A team of doctors in the hematology, oncology and transplant (HOT) unit suspected HLH, and they were looking for a marker called ferratin to rise, indicating she had the disorder.
On Valentine’s Day, Audra ate a small piece of Dove chocolate. Inside the wrapper, which she still has, it read, “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
How true that was because that day her ferratin level went from 710 to 1,000 and the next day to 4,100 and the HOT team sprang into action.
Audra immediately started a chemotherapy and drug regimen to treat the presumed HLH, but for three weeks she continued to have fevers and swollen glands that prevented her from eating solid foods.
An intern, who spent long hours researching HLH, which he knew little about before Audra arrived, read that if chemotherapy and some drugs are given too close together, there can be a reaction. They waited longer to give her the second drug, and the swelling went down. Audra was able to eat solid food again.
However, the white blood cells refused to multiply.
The team tried a trifecta assault with a combination of an antibody, chemotherapy and other drugs in hopes of avoiding the need for a bone marrow transplant. On March 12, her white blood cells went up for the first time, from 10 to 20.
After another drug was introduced to stimulate the blood cells to reproduce, her white cell count rose to 70, then 90, then 190.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Audra’s blood cell count was a whopping 790. Calculating the rest of her blood chemistry, her total infection-fighting cells rose from 40 to 4,000.
“It was truly the art of medicine,” Daniloff said. “The brains (doctors) didn’t have all the answers, but they did intelligent guessing.”
Her oncology doctor walked into the room and said, “Get out of here. We need this bed for sick people.”
On March 20, the Daniloffs packed up the hundreds of cards and stuffed animals she had received and went home. Audra couldn’t see friends while she was undergoing chemotherapy three days a week at Children’s Hospital, but she was kept in the loop through social media.
On her 16th birthday, May 8, Audra went back to school — the best gift she could get.
Daniloff said he didn’t know until much later how sick his daughter was when she arrived at Children’s. Had she not gotten treatment, Audra likely would have died within 48 hours, he was told.
Although she knew the cancer was deadly, Audra said she didn’t think about dying.
“I never thought about it. I figured they would make me better,” she said.
Her positive attitude has extended to her recovery. She worked hard to regain her muscle strength. She credits her physical therapist, dance team and the fact that her chemistry class was five flights up from the lunchroom for that.
Much of her summer was spent at dance camps, which really helped get her back in shape, she said.
Audra was proud of her long, thick blonde hair, but when she ended up with a few clumps due to the chemotherapy, she shaved her head on July 4.
One of her good friends quipped, “Good thing you don’t have an ugly head.”
“I like it short, but I’ll probably grow it long so I can braid it for dance,” Audra said.
Audra missed the dance team’s trip to Las Vegas for national competition and a choir trip to Memphis and New Orleans.
Before the choir left, they live streamed a song to her.
Her dance team, classmates and a close group of friends who call themselves The Avengers kept her involved through social media.
Image Information: Audra Daniloff (center) and her fellow Port Washington High School varsity dance team members. Photo by Sam Arendt