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It was a parent's worst nightmare. Gianna Signorile succumbed at age 21 to a cancer that was so rare it went undetected at first, and then spread so quickly it was all but impossible to stop.
The Nutley High School graduate was a freshman at the University of Maryland in 2019 when she began having severe stomach issues and vomiting. Doctors found a mass in her liver they believed to be benign and recommended a biopsy when she returned home.
Her mother, Dawn Signorile, said her doctor in New Jersey didn't want to do a biopsy because of the invasiveness of the procedure. While the family was struggling to figure out what was happening with Gianna, Signorile was fighting a battle of her own: breast cancer.
As Signorile finished her breast cancer treatment in April 2020, Gianna's symptoms worsened. She was rushed to the hospital in May, and a biopsy showed she had Stage 4 fibrolamellar carcinoma. This type of cancer is extremely rare, believed to occur in one in 5 million people, according to the National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research.
It affects teens and adults under 40 who have healthy livers, unlike other forms of liver cancer, which affect older people and those with conditions such as hepatitis or cirrhosis.
On Dec. 20, 2021, Gianna died after a difficult battle with the disease.
In the months after her diagnosis, she endured a 16-hour surgery at Rush University Hospital in Chicago that left her with septic shock, blood clots and tissue damage on her fingers and toes. She had to relearn to walk when she got home in September 2020.
Family and friends stepped in to help. Her mother's fellow teacher at Tenafly High School, Alicia Sedlock, set up a GoFundMe page to help with medical and travel expenses.
The initial GoFundMe campaign raised around $76,000 and allowed Gianna to continue her education closer to home at Fordham University.
But just three months after her surgery, Gianna's cancer returned, and this past December, her liver was failing.
"They had told me and my husband that she didn't have a lot of time left," Dawn Signorile said. "We didn't tell her, but she had an idea, because she told me she didn't feel right."
Her mother said Gianna kept coming back from setbacks, but was suffering in the end and told Signorile that although she wanted to live, she no longer wanted to suffer.
"She said 'I'm not giving up, I'm suffering. This is not a good quality of life,' " Dawn Signorile said.
Gianna's family and friends remember her as a spitfire with a penchant for academics, a love of food, adventure and Harry Potter, and a willingness to help others.
Signorile said Gianna was active in sports as a child, while also struggling with severe asthma, and devoted herself to cheerleading starting in fifth grade. She was captain of the Nutley cheerleading squad in her senior year.
Gianna was "very outgoing, energetic and lively" and extremely determined about everything she did, including academics, her mother said.
Sedlock called her a firecracker, saying Gianna was always off on adventures and that didn't stop even when she got sick. She said her mother would get a call that she was at a winery or was at the Women's March in New York City.
Gianna's brother, John, a high school senior, said his fondest memories of his sister are of when they were younger and would dress up as Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, filming skits they wrote. He said she pushed and challenged him academically.
"The way we bonded was through creative ways," John said. "When I think of her, I always go back to that Harry Potter skit."
Gianna's family and friends were in awe of her as she struggled with her illness while maintaining a high academic standard. Dawn Signorile said that despite the pain and constant throwing up during her first semester at the University of Maryland, her daughter made the dean's list.
When Dawn Signorile would get depressed over what was happening to her daughter, Gianna would say, "Ma, get a grip. It's not happening to you."
She wanted to continue her education at Fordham's business school with the hope of becoming a lawyer. She took five classes at Fordham, juggling treatments with schoolwork, and managed to live in an off-campus apartment with other students for a little over a month before having to come home.
Before she died, she took a trip to Nashville with her friends, including best friend Jennifer Doyle. Doyle said it was sometimes difficult to tell if Gianna was feeling sick, because she always managed to have a good time.
"She put up such an amazing front, and no one really knew that she was suffering as much as she was," Doyle said.
Kaitlyn Kanzler covers Essex County for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Nutley High School grad who died of fibrolamellar carcinoma remembered