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Ashley's story: rare cancer, overwhelming loss, amazing grace

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There is much more to Ashley Quintanilla than this story.

But this part of her story is about unimaginable loss and the Taos community that surrounded her with love.

Her father Scott Quintanilla was working as a tile setter and substitute teacher in Taos, earning his teaching degree on the side, when his 12-year-old daughter fell ill. Trips to hospitals to figure out what was wrong had impacted his work for months. Finally, in March, Ashley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

She began chemotherapy treatment May 10 in Albuquerque.

"She will need to go through treatment for an entire year and it will include radiation treatment and surgery. Through all of this we will do whatever it takes to lessen the side effects...." wrote Scott Quintanilla in a GoFundMe page he had set up to raise money for the mounting expenses. "The cost along with the constant travel to various hospitals will be tremendous."

"...Ashley is the only child we know of with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma in the entire state of New Mexico," he wrote of Ashley's cancer. "According to doctors at (University of New Mexico Hospital), they have not seen a case in three years. In the entire country and including Europe, there could be as little as 250 cases diagnosed this year," he wrote.

In late May, Ashley's mother, April Brown was murdered in a triple homicide. Two men were arrested and charged with the deaths.

Though Quintanilla was no longer with Brown, they shared two children: Ashley and Justice. "I am now 100% her caretaker, which is a full-time job and then some," wrote Quintanilla in an update to the GoFundMe page. "Her mother had come up and visited her a few times and was going to try to get some things together, so she could maybe start helping."

Now, he wrote, "My only job for the entire year will be to take care of Ashley and her needs."

"During this year we will have to fundraise all the money that we need to get through our life, which includes travel to various hospitals and keeping up with all of our bills and such," Quintanilla posted in June in a GoFundMe update. "Family and community have already been amazing. I have always worked and have never been in a situation where I've had to ask for this type of help. Any amount helps. But always remember take care of your family first. Prayers, of course, are always welcome, and even if you just want to post a nice comment that I can read to her, we love those, too."

"Ashley is strong and I have no doubt in my mind that she will beat this!"

A few weeks later, Quintanilla posted an update. "Ashley has had so much love shown to her over the past few weeks, and we are so incredibly thankful for that love. Ashley has shown me such courage and braveness over the past days and it is truly humbling."

"The doctors have told Ashley and I how our lives, most likely, will be very different and that we should start putting our support group together. Ashley will need constant care and intense treatment over the next year or so. She will also need me by her side a lot of this time."

His update is that of a father dealing constantly with the unknown, in search of answers. "This has all been a bit surreal, and I am still trying to get my emotions in check and wrap my mind around the whole thing," Quintanilla wrote in the GoFundMe update. "All the things we have to decide over the next few days much less weeks seem so overwhelming. My ability to support my family, schooling for Ashley, treatment for Ashley, how to keep the needed level of parenting with my other children?... the list goes on and on. There are still so many questions that need to be answered. We have lots of family and friends that are always stepping in, but resources will always be needed."

The community helped with donations, bake sales, concert fundraisers, gift cards, groceries, words of encouragement and more.

The family had good news in early fall. "Yesterday, based on a CAT Scan ....we received the news that Ashley's tumor has decreased in size by as much as 66%! Yes, this is the best news we could have received. We are all ecstatic! Most of you have helped us in some way or another-- and deserve credit in this journey of ours!"

They decided not to have surgery because of the tumor's location. "We will fight it with proton radiation treatment. There are only a handful of places in the country that provide this type of treatment in the United States. We will be going to Loma Linda, California (outer part of Los Angeles)," Quintanilla wrote.

In early October, Scott posted, "As always we want to continue to thank everyone for their continued support. We have felt so much love during this time and we are truly appreciative….

"We have been in California for three weeks and have three to go. We will hopefully be home on Oct. 30. The proton treatment here at Loma Linda is considered to be one of the best in the country."

Quintanilla's posts were those of a father feeling helpless to stop his daughter's suffering. "We have good and bad days. It seems like every time we start to think we turned a corner and she is feeling better, we get reminded how intense and hard the treatment affects the body. This week we are reminded again. On these kind of weeks we spend the day trying to figure out what she can stomach and keep down. Such a feeling of weakness for me, because there is nothing I can really do to take the pain and nausea away from her.. all we can do is keep trying..."

Ashley was scheduled for another round of chemo on Nov. 3. "The light is at the end of the tunnel and Ashley is defying the odds already," Quintanilla wrote. "The day that we return to our regular life and Ashley continues her life into adulthood is right around the corner. Love and Peace."

On Nov. 7, Scott Quintanilla died in a car accident near Eagle Nest. He was 46.

The world turned upside down yet again.

Kiva Duckworth-Moulton, one of Ashley's aunts, posted to the GoFundMe site a few days later.

"This is an update no one could have imagined writing and posting. It has been nine days since we learned of Scott's death. The shock has not yet worn off, but we carry on. Because of Ashley and Justice, we carry on."

"Scott began this fundraising campaign when he realized he was single-handedly responsible for the care of his daughter and son that included a complicated schedule of chemotherapy treatments for Ashley's cancer," Duckworth-Moulton wrote.

"This campaign transformed into an incredible testimony to the love in our world. The support poured in from all over the world from people who have been touched by the story of April's death, Ashley's cancer, and now, Scott's death. As Ashley's extended and beautiful family, we will continue to express our unending gratitude to everyone who has reached out with prayers, kind words, sympathy, money, food and love."

As of Monday (Nov. 27), more than 600 people had contributed a total of $54,456 to the fund, surpassing Quintanilla's original goal.

"Ashley's cancer treatment will continue through the spring," wrote Duckworth-Moulton, April Brown's sister. "The children are being cuddled and coddled and have a long road of healing ahead. This fund will continue to support Justice and Ashley's medical and emotional care, and our family promises that as an investment in their future will be managed with care."

In a phone interview, Duckworth-Moulton said Taos had been "incredibly generous" in helping Ashley, now 13, and Justice, 17.

Little of what happened makes sense, she said. "That Ashley and Justice could lose both parents in the space of six months is mind-blowing. But at the same time, they are not alone in the world."

On Monday (Nov. 26), she said doctors had just told the family Ashley's chemotherapy treatments needed to be extended by six months.

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