Two-year-old Mila Phillips has been sick for most of her young life. During her second year of life, she started losing weight, and she stopped eating and walking.
"She was sick one day," said Tammy Phillips, her grandmother. "She never got better. She got weaker and weaker. One day, she wouldn't stop throwing up."
For months, the Phillips family couldn't find the source of her illness until a brain scan revealed a terminal malignancy.
That was Labor Day 2006. Doctors gave her two to four months to live.
She was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer called astrocytoma.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the tumors affect the central nervous system. The malignancies develop in the cerebellum located at the stem of the brain. As the tumor grows, it impacts movement, balance and posture.
Although cancer is rare in children, brain cancer is the most common type other than leukemia. It usually occurs in children between the ages of 3 to 12, and when it does, 15 to 20 percent of those cases are diagnosed with some form of astrocytoma.
These tumors are usually slow growing and that's probably why Mila's symptoms didn't show up right away.
"It was just like the earth fell apart," said Phillips, a Pine resident. "We tried to figure out what was wrong for so long and we never thought it was a brain tumor. It just didn't register."
The tumor is inoperable. By the time it was found, its cells had invaded the surrounding tissue. The family considered radiation treatment, but the cancer had progressed beyond any chemotherapy protocols. To keep Mila comfortable, surgeons implanted a shunt to remove the fluid from her brain.
For the past months, Mila has been in Hospice, and her life is a day-to-day struggle. Her tumor is about the size of a lemon and puts pressure on her esophagus and eyes. Her body functions are winding down and when she sleeps, her breathing is labored.
"At this point, it's day to day," Phillips said. "She can die in her sleep. Her body is starting to shut down. She only weighs 18 or 19 pounds. The cancer is running a marathon in her body. She's getting weak."
Mila is the Phillips' first and only grandchild -- but she's also the only girl among a family of boys. And though Mila's cancer has taken away her ability to walk, sit up and eat, Phillips said she's still very much a 2-year-old.
"Her main brain is fine," she said.
She loves cartoons, especially "Spongebob Squarepants." She draws and chatters away, but without powerful narcotics, she'd be in excruciating pain.
"She doesn't know she's going to die, but she knows she's sick," Phillips said. "She knows the vocabulary and she knows when she gets medicine it makes her feel better."
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Phillips family relies on its faith to provide strength for each other and Mila.
"Our religious beliefs give us a lot of faith as far as what happens to us after we die," she said. "We are really at peace with what's happening, as tragic and as horrible as it is."
The Justice McNeeley Foundation stepped in to help out with medical expenses, and Hospice has provided a source of comfort.
"I don't know where these people come from," Phillips said. "They are angels. They are amazing. They are just there for you."
Phillips said she's grateful that her employer, The Home Depot, has helped out financially and provided the flexibility she needs to tend to her ailing granddaughter.
For Christmas, the Phillips spent the day at Hospice with Mila.
"She continues to teach and bless us every day with her sweet, perfect little 2-year-old spirit," Phillips said.
An account has been established at Bank of America called the Mila Phillips' Fund Account. The money allows family members to spend time with their baby girl, as well as covering medical expenses and funeral costs.