Family with twins facing incredible challenges receives gift from strangers

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Natasha, left, and her sister Abigail make faces at their dad, Joshua, as they sit with their mother, Kimberly Tillotson, in the family room of their home Friday, June 22, 2012 in Murray. Abigail and Natasha are identical twins with Down syndrome and suffering from leukemia.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MURRAY — Abigail and Natasha Tillotson ride an ever-changing wave of emotions.

While getting a push on the swings from their parents, the identical twins are one moment bellowing with laughter, and ready for a meltdown the next.

"They might be a little slower," said their father, Joshua Tillotson, "but that also slows life down for everybody around them. And it helps you to look at what's really important, and you take joy in some of the smaller things."

That emotional roller coaster is not for the girls alone. Tillotson and his wife, Kimberly, face incredible challenges as well. But the family received an extraordinary gift this past month, mainly from strangers.

"A roller coaster is probably a pretty good way to describe it," she said.

"But it's the best roller coaster we've ever been on," he added with a laugh.    

Abigail and Natasha were born with Down syndrome in 2008. They are the fifth and sixth of the Tillotsons' seven children, who range in age from 2 to 11 years old.

Last February, the couple raced Abigail to Primary Children's Medical Center in the middle of the night when she stopped walking. A few hours later, they were told she has acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It’s a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many of a certain type of white blood cells. It’s the most common type of cancer in children, according to the National Cancer Institute. It says having a genetic disorder, such as Down syndrome, may increase the risk of getting leukemia.

"No parents ever think it's going to happen to them," she said. "So when you're standing in the room, and they tell you your kid has cancer, you're so blown away because that's always somebody else."

But it wasn't somebody else. And the family knew the odds were high, 50 percent to 75 percent, that Natasha would have leukemia, too.

"In the back of my mind, I just knew that her turn was coming, and the clock was just ticking," she said.

So it didn't come as a shock when Natasha was also diagnosed with ALL leukemia eight months later. 

The 4-year-old girls are the only identical twins in the world with Down syndrome and leukemia, doctors told the couple.

Fortunately, there's an 85 percent cure rate for the type of leukemia the sisters have. But both girls are in the midst of a 2 ½-year cycle of chemotherapy, which takes a toll. While the girls are identical twins, the way the leukemia affects them is quite different.

Abigail has suffered several complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure and neuropathy. But her parents say she’s an amazing and resilient girl who rarely lets the nausea or pain get in her way.

For Natasha, the disease has affected her differently. Her complications have come in the form of viral illnesses forcing her to be admitted to the hospital for several days. The only clue they have that she is sick is when she doesn’t eat or when they hear "Oops, soowy,” because she threw up, they say.

But no matter how she feels, they say she is ready with a smile and hugs for anyone.

Their parents say they find inspiration in the girls' will to fight the cancer.

"They're really pure, innocent girls; and it's neat to see that," Joshua Tillotson said. "It's great to have them in the house. They help minimize the adult troubles that come with all of this."

"They help wipe away what we think is really important, and get down to the basics," he added.

"What they both have to go through is awful," their mother said. "But we're going to look back on this someday and be so grateful for the experience that it brought to all of us in our family."

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