Lily Anderson lived her life to the fullest. The 11-year-old was a singer, cheerleader and a symbol of hope for the community and families nationwide who followed her struggle with a rare childhood cancer.
It’s been a month since the spirited Vickery Creek Middle School student lost her battle with Neuroblastoma. Friends and family are mourning her loss, as are the many others she touched with her smile and soul.
Nearly 18,000 followed her journey on social media. To her parents, Jennifer and Joel however, Lily was just their little girl.
“Even before she was sick, people would say, ‘There’s just something about her,’” Jennifer Anderson said. “I truly know she had a job here on Earth and she did it well. She spread kindness and love throughout the world … She was an Earth angel.”
Lily was diagnosed in 2009 with a large tumor behind her liver; the cancer had spread to her bone marrow. Over the next year, she went through several rounds of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, radiation and antibody therapy. Despite the trying treatment plan and hair loss, she never lost her brightness.
Anderson said one of her daughter’s most memorable experiences was performing the national anthem before an Atlanta Braves baseball game in 2011 representing the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research.
“She actually took chemo 30 minutes before she sang,” Anderson said. “She just never let any of her treatments get her down. She always had a smile on her face.”
In addition to her family, Lily’s best friend Sophie Sutphin was at the game. “I was nervous, but I was happy for her,” she said. “She did amazing.”
The Braves also took notice, according to family friend Ed Johnson.
“The whole organization just fell in love with her,” he said. “… And she was such a hero, because even when she was battling cancer and hurting like the devil, she was trying to help other people.”
Lily had many friends in school and throughout the community, but she and Sutphin had been inseparable since preschool. They spent time together at the mall, making cupcakes, doing each other’s makeup and just being girls.
Even during Lily’s sickest moments, the two spent time together. Last spring break, they visited Rosemary Beach, Fla.
“[We] just had a lot of fun times there,” Sutphin said. “We got to ride bikes together everywhere. I had to keep her strong and I had to be like her rock and make sure that she was in good spirits.”
Lily may be gone, but her legacy lives on at Vickery Middle School, where students still dress up in pink and green to support her.
“It’s in memory of her so no one ever forgets,” Sutphin said.
Lily died Dec. 15. Her funeral and celebration of life at StoneCreek Church in Milton drew more than 2,000 people, with even more support online. Forsyth County Fire Lt. Kevin Wells was among those in attendance.
“We had green lights on our ladder [truck] and that was her color … so we set the green ladder in the air for her stairway to heaven,” Wells said.
Also there were several Braves players, as well as several Atlanta Falcons.
“It just touches your heart,” Johnson said. “They had her with stuffed animals and a little Christmas elf on the edge of the casket, and she had her cell phone and her little diary because she loved writing her friends and writing about her battle.
“In her 11 years, she probably touched more lives than most of us will do in a lifetime.”
Wells said he got to know the family over the years. During the first Lily’s Run to raise money for cancer research, he picked up Lily in the fire truck and brought her to the finish line, where she could wave to supporters.
“We were there from pretty much day one and we’ve kept in touch. She did so much to raise money for child cancer,” Wells said.
“I have a little daughter the same age, so it just puts it even closer to home … you’re hoping obviously there’ll be some miracle cure from the beginning, but you knew from the diagnosis it would grow. It was just very heartbreaking.”
When Lily went somewhere, she traveled with a song and a smile. She sang at a Fallen Warriors Project benefit for children of deceased troops. She sang with the Atlanta area band Collective Soul and alongside Christopher Alan Yates at fundraisers.
“I’m proud that I’m her mom and I’m proud of her for the job she did here,” Anderson said.
Lily’s reach was particularly evident in her final month. Her cheerleading coach came up with the idea to light 11 candles and place the luminaries in front of her home. The candles became part of a movement dubbed Lanterns for Lily, which reached some 30 states. For her funeral, more than 2,500 lights lined the street to the church.
To say the past month has “been very difficult is an understatement,” Anderson said. “I still have to go to school and clean out her locker. I’m just going to take my time.”
Anderson’s little sister Audrey, 5, has been the family’s focus and “making sure she has the life she deserves.”
“For three and a half years, I was in the hospital a lot. She missed her mom,” Anderson said. “Audrey now deserves 100 percent of my attention. We’re living a life for her and honoring her sister by living a ‘yes’ life.”