Category

Childhood Cancer

Timothy’s Road to Health

Timothy is the kind of boy who would never let a little stomachache slow him down. A sports enthusiast, you could often find him with a ball in his hand – usually a baseball or football. But toward the end of 2017, a persistent stomach pain started to take its toll. As the pain’s severity increased, his mother, Sloan, began looking for answers.

“We began at our pediatrician and then progressed to a pediatric gastroenterologist,” Sloan recalled. “After about three months of trying things that didn’t help, the doctor ordered a sonogram.”

The sonogram revealed a tumor near his stomach and liver. Timothy was immediately prepped for a biopsy where the tumor was identified as neuroblastoma – a childhood cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body. The diagnosis was a surprise because Timothy was eleven years old, and neuroblastoma most commonly affects children five or younger.

After the biopsy confirmed the results, Timothy had another surgery to add his port and started his first round of rigorous chemotherapy that was to last five months. While the treatment did wonders to shrink the tumor, it also ravaged his body at the same time.

“Timothy went from a healthy boy to a state of malnourishment,” Sloan said. “He was so sick that he got down to 48 pounds, and we had to have a g-tube placed to give him nutrition.”

The next phase of treatment was removal surgery. The chemo had worked to shrink the tumor, and during a seven-hour operation, doctors took out all they could. Because the tumor was wrapped around two major arteries, the surgeon was unable to remove it completely. Once he recovered, Timothy had a stem cell transplant followed by radiation, and then immunotherapy, which is a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.

The immunotherapy was particularly harsh on Timothy, and he spent weeks at a time in the pediatric intensive care unit. Through all of the difficult treatments, separation from friends and family, and time away from home, he never complained. Despite missing many days of school, he worked hard and was able to finish the sixth grade with all A’s!

Timothy has been declared No Evidence of Disease (or NED) for ten months. He isn’t quite finished with his treatment. In order to prevent a relapse, he is enrolled in a clinical trial and takes three pills twice daily. He will continue that regimen for another year and a half.

“All-in-all, Timothy is doing great,” said Sloan. “His weight is up to 80 pounds, and he’s looking forward to playing baseball again in the spring. We aren’t sure about football, but we’ll decide on that later. For now, we are just thrilled that he’s healthy again.”

Timothy’s family has expressed gratitude to CURE for helping them deal with the challenges of treatment. The hospital where he received the majority of his treatment was 80 miles from his home, and his stem cell transplant was 300 miles away. CURE was able to help ease the financial burdens of the travel through our family emergency fund – part of which helps with gas and other travel-related expenses.

“We want to make sure the high cost of transporting a child to treatment doesn’t take a toll on a family’s finances,” said Lisa Branch, CURE’s Director of Patient and Family Services.  “CURE is happy to be able to help families like Timothy’s in this way, because a long stretch of highway should never be a barrier to a child’s health.”

A Legacy of Compassion

If you waved at Michael Mugrage, it’s doubtful you would have received a wave in return. More than likely, you’d have gotten a warm smile and one of his signature shakas – a hand gesture residents of Hawaii use to convey the Aloha spirit. It is a sign of friendship, compassion, and respect. Michael was born in Hawaii and spent his first twelve years there before moving to Bluffton, South Carolina.

In Bluffton, Michael grew to become a typical high school teenager. He liked playing Xbox, loved football (he’s a huge fan of Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers), was looking forward to getting his driver’s license, and was taking classes to pursue a future career in law enforcement. But he was getting thin, and he started complaining of severe leg pain, abdominal pain, and headaches. A doctor said these were just growing pains, but just days later, Michael was in urgent care with a collapsed lung.

Two hospital transfers via ambulance in a matter of hours and several tests later, he received devastating news. On Halloween 2017, Michael and his mother, Jessica, were told that he most likely had cancer. He had a large mass and would need surgery for a biopsy. The result came back as high-risk (stage 4) alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS), an aggressive soft tissue cancer. Although they were fairly new to Bluffton at the time of the devastating diagnosis, their neighbors rallied to their side. The high school principal, teachers, classmates, and several police officers stopped in to visit. Early on, Captain Joe Babkiewicz of the Bluffton Police Department and Michael formed a strong friendship based on their passion for law enforcement and football. Recognizing his qualities of courage, strength, and compassion, Captain Babkiewicz made Michael an honorary Bluffton police officer and designated him a “True Hero.”

Michael endured months of high-intensity chemotherapy treatments, surgery to remove the mass, and the lifetime amount of radiation to his lung and abdomen. For a while, the treatment seemed to work, and Michael was counting down his remaining treatments with hopes of remission and returning to high school. Unfortunately, nine months into treatment, the cancer returned with a vengeance and Michael was given days to live.

Proving his status as a hero, Michael accepted his fate and asked to enroll in a trial to help other children, even after being told it would not help him. He was scheduled for an appointment, but his health deteriorated quickly, leaving him unable to travel for the trial. Michael passed away on August 28, 2018 at the age of 16.

When Michael knew his time on earth was coming to an end, he again showed the compassion for which he had been commended. He told his friends and family that his desire was to see an end to pediatric cancer so that children diagnosed after him would have hope of a long life. In response, his mother and brother, Matthew, have created Michael’s Fund 4 a CURE, a new Named Fund of CURE Childhood Cancer. The primary purpose of the fund is to invest in precision medicine – which brings personalized medicine to children with cancer. It is his family’s desire that Michael’s legacy of compassion will lead to a day of new hope for children diagnosed with cancer.

Click the button below to visit the Named Fund honoring Michael.

Climb to a Million

Although it was one of the hottest days of the year, the 4th annual Lendmark Climb to a Million went off without a hitch. Even the heat didn’t deter hundreds of employees, friends, and family members from walking, running, and climbing at the Oconee County High School track.

The event was inspired by Chip Madren, and was held on the 9th anniversary of his brain tumor diagnosis. Bobby Aiken, CEO of Lendmark Financial, has been friends with Chip’s father since childhood and created the Climb to a Million as a way to combine his love of stadium running with a fundraiser that would engaging his company’s employees, partners, and vendors in the fight against childhood cancer.

Events, fundraisers, and smaller climbs were held throughout the country by Lendmark employees. Through their combined efforts, the Climb to a Million raised an amazing $552,000 to advance CURE’s Precision Medicine Initiative. This pushes the total amount to $1.8 million and helps CURE move the needle in bringing advanced treatment options to children fighting cancer.

“We are inspired by Lendmark and their incredible commitment to make a difference in the lives of children with cancer,” said CURE’s Executive Director, Kristin Connor. “They saw a problem and set out to fix it in a creative and fun way. Their energy and passion is contagious!”

Read more about Lendmark on their website

Lendmark CEO, Bobby Aiken and Chip Madren before the Climb

A Return to School

When your child receives a diagnosis of cancer, a return to school can happen at any time during the year and can become either a welcome return to normalcy or a cause of stress. Both responses are normal. Some children welcome going back to school. For them it may symbolize that they have a future and they are finally “normal” again. Other children may struggle with anxiety. They may be concerned about whether others will accept them, tease them, or ask tough questions.

In order to prepare for this return to school, families should:

PLAN AHEAD

Far in advance, communicate with your child’s care team about possible time frames for a return to the classroom. Find out what they typically recommend to aid with school re-entry. For example, they may suggest your child return to school for only half-days at first until he builds up his strength.

DISCUSS SCHOOL RE-ENTRY WITH YOUR CHILD’S SCHOOL

Once you have a date and a strong understanding of your child’s needs, reach out to the principal of your child’s school. Ask to speak to your child’s teachers, the school nurse, and/or the school counselor/psychologist, and anyone else involved in helping your child reestablish a school routine. Be sure they understand your child’s cancer experience and treatment, discuss your child’s physical, emotional and academic limitations and discuss how the  school  will educate other children in your child’s class/grade to prepare them for your child’s return.

PLAN A SCHOOL VISIT

Depending on the length of time your child has been absent and the physical changes she has experienced, it may be helpful to plan a visit to the classroom before your child returns to school. After the teachers/counselors have prepared students for your child’s return, consider whether it would be helpful to visit and read a book about cancer, play a game and/or bring a treat for students in your child’s classroom.

MAKE SURE THE SCHOOL IS PREPARED

Provide the school with your child’s medications along with instructions for their administration. Include medications your child must avoid. Give the school a list of potential problems to watch for and when to contact you. Make sure the school has current and updated emergency contact information and instructions. Request a 504 plan for special accommodations if appropriate. And finally, ask that the school treat your child as normally as possible except for areas of special need.

PREPARE YOURSELF FOR YOUR CHILD’S RETURN TO SCHOOL

It is important to recognize that your child’s return to school may be as hard, if not harder, on you than it is on your child. Worry about infections, falling behind in school work and being teased by other children can all cause anxiety in parents. If you are having a hard time managing your emotions, if you are feeling overwhelmed and irritable, and/or if you are crying often, you may benefit from speaking with a counselor about ways to improve and manage your anxiety and fears.

PREPARE YOUR CHILD FOR QUESTIONS FROM OTHER STUDENTS

Children will manage better if they know what to expect. Let them know that other children may not know much about cancer and may ask questions like “can I catch cancer from you?” Coach your child on how he would like to answer questions. Also, let your child know that he does not have to answer every question and can refer questions to the teacher.

MONITOR YOUR CHILD’S ACADEMIC CAPABILITES

If your child is struggling to catch up or keep up at school upon returning, quickly request a meeting with the teacher to discuss the appropriateness of a 504 or Individual Educational Plan (IEP). Children can exhibit a lack of focus, a decrease in the ability to remember and difficulty completing tasks after cancer treatment. They may struggle in social situations with friends and/or develop learning disabilities. A 504 or IEP plan is negotiated by parents and teachers to set appropriate educational goals for a child with physical, emotional, or learning struggles. Such a plan can make school more successful for your child.

 

Remember that returning to school, although potentially hard for both you and your child, is a step towards recovery. It is a chance for your child to return to a normal life and may help to reestablish a sense of hope for everyone.

 

By Carleen Newsome, LPC, CPCS, ACS

 

Here Comes Braylynn

If you hear a squeaking sound, it might be Braylynn headed your way! Thanks to her favorite pair of shoes, her nurses all know when she’s coming and get ready with arms wide open.

The fact is, sweet Braylynn has spent way too much time in the hospital. Since her diagnosis in 2017, she has learned to walk in the hospital, met her baby brother in the hospital, and grown up around needles, tubes, and nurses. She will turn two in August and has spent an unbelievable 245 days in the hospital.

Once she learned to walk, seeing her toddle up and down the hospital halls became a common sight.

It started with a runny nose and fever that wouldn’t go away. Her mother took her to the pediatrician in Hazelhurst. He felt swollen lymph nodes at the base of her skull and knew immediately something was very wrong. His experience told him it was leukemia, and a blood test confirmed it.

“After he told me she had cancer, I couldn’t get my mom or husband on the phone,” said Braylynn’s mother, Drew. “I panicked because we don’t have any cancer in my family history, and I didn’t even know kids could get cancer. All I could think was that I might lose my baby.”

As her family learned of the diagnosis and began arriving at the hospital, Drew was able to collect herself for the long ride to Savannah where Braylynn would be treated. There they would learn that Braylynn had infantile leukemia with a mutation that made it high risk. In fact, it was the hospital’s first case in seven years.

Braylynn began treatment right away. She reached remission quickly, and fortunately, there was an open clinical trial designed specifically for her cancer’s mutation. She began the trial drug, and after just four rounds the trial chemo worked to reduce the effect of the mutation.

The side effects were brutal though. Braylynn had severe mouth sores and a diaper rash bad enough that the hospital’s burn unit evaluated her and brought a cream to sooth the rash. Because she was so young, the chemo was always hard on her, which is why she spent so many days inpatient. She is finished with that now and takes an oral chemo that doesn’t seem to bother her.

Since she is at home more often, Braylynn can enjoy being outside, her dogs, and her little brother, Luke.

“Luke is her world,” Drew said. “He was born while she was in treatment and every day she was there, he was too because I wouldn’t leave either one of them. It’s hard to keep a toddler happy while they are confined to a room. That’s why she spent so much time roaming the halls with the nurses. She loves those nurses.”

Due to her treatment, Braylynn’s speech is somewhat delayed but she is catching up now. Drew doesn’t know exactly when Braylynn’s treatment will end, but she is confident Braylynn will keep running and squeaking until she can say goodbye to the hospital for good.

The Light on the Other Side

Beverly Rousch considers herself a very optimistic person. Even through numerous setbacks during her fifteen-year-old son’s fight with cancer, she remained positive. But it was admittedly difficult.

In August 2018, her son, Seth, developed flu-like symptoms that wouldn’t go away. His persistent weakness, exhaustion, and muscle aches worried his mother, but it wasn’t until she saw his arm that she grew alarmed.

“I remember that he pulled off his blanket to reach up for something and his arm shocked me,” she recalled. “It was so thin and frail that I got him up and immediately took him to the emergency room. I knew something was really wrong.”

What doctors discovered was pre-b cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Seth received several units of blood through a transfusion to help with his symptoms. He also started chemotherapy immediately with the goal of achieving remission. Reaching remission means that leukemia cells are no longer found in bone marrow samples, the normal marrow cells return, and the blood counts become normal. More than 95% of children with ALL enter remission after one month of treatment.

But Seth didn’t get to remission and had to endure another round of chemo. After that was finished, the number of leukemia cells had been reduced but were still present, so doctors began a round of very aggressive chemo.

“I’m a positive person,” Beverly said. “Even though we weren’t there yet, I was okay because we were seeing progress. But we got through the third round and he still hadn’t gotten to remission. He was getting thinner, and he got a virus that made him very sick. Still, I felt like we had tried a few things that didn’t work, but we would get to the right thing next.”

Because he wasn’t responding to treatment, a bone marrow transplant was ruled out even though a match had been found for Seth. His options were dwindling until he qualified for CAR T-cell therapy. Beverly began researching this new form of treatment and found a man whose fifteen-year-old son had been saved by it. After speaking with her husband, she consulted with Seth’s doctors. Soon Beverly and Seth were on their way to Atlanta to collect his T-cells.

T-cells are the aggressive force within the immune system, attacking and effectively beating most foreign bodies. But for some reason they do not attack cancer. With the CAR T-cell therapy Seth received, scientists added disabled HIV virus to his own T-cells and then re-introduced the T-cells into his bloodstream. The genetic modification allowed the new virus/T-cell combination to lock onto the surface of cancer cells, killing them in the process.

After everything else had failed, this new therapy got Seth to remission within 30 days. Best of all, the Rousch’s got a call in April from their doctor saying Seth had no evidence of disease whatsoever. To Beverly’s surprise, he felt better almost immediately and began craving steak. He’s eaten steak nearly every day since.

Seth is doing great now. He goes to an arts school where he majors in the French horn. He loves football, soccer, The Office, and the New England Patriots. Despite their trying times, his mother never wavered in her belief that he would be well.

“That first day when I dropped him off at school,” Beverly relayed. “I had to take a minute to catch my breath. Sometimes you don’t know how dark the tunnel is until you see the light on the other side. Our daily steak bill is a small price to pay for a healthy son.”

Getting Back to Normal

High school years can be tough. While some teenagers seek the spotlight, others just want to blend in – especially if they are going through something difficult or out of the norm. This was Katie Rutherford’s experience. After fighting cancer, Katie is looking for every opportunity get back to normal.

“It’s not easy being bald as a teenage girl,” Katie explained. “Not everyone knew about my cancer, so my first day back to school I got a lot of stares. But my friends were so supportive and when I started wearing head wraps some of them wore them with me.”

Katie’s cancer journey started with a bump on her chin. Tiny at first, it grew larger until it was the size of a quarter and very hard. After several trips to dermatologists, urgent cares, and the emergency room, a doctor used the word “malignancy” in her hearing.

“When the doctor said that word, I locked eyes with Katie and asked her if she understood what we had just been told,” Katie’s mother, Karen, recalled. “Katie nodded her head slowly and then we were thrown headfirst into the pediatric cancer world.”

Katie’s diagnosis was rhabdomyosarcoma, a very aggressive form of soft tissue cancer and soon she began a 48-week chemo regimen that also included 30 days of radiation. Since her diagnosis date was at the tail-end of her sophomore year, this meant that her junior year of high school would basically be a loss.

“I missed a lot of time, but I didn’t fall too far behind,” Katie said. “My teachers were very accommodating and I was assigned a tutor who helped me stay on track. Besides prom and a couple of football games, I didn’t get to do a lot socially outside of school and the hospital, though.”

Because of the location of the tumor, Katie had to have radiation from her mouth down to her chest. This resulted in awful mouth sores that left her unable to eat, drink, and talk. To make matters worse, while receiving radiation she still had to have regular chemo treatments. Even during this pain, she was determined to perform in her school plays.

“Getting back to normal was always my goal,” Katie said. “But now that I’ve watched young children fight cancer and know some who didn’t make it, I don’t know if I’ll ever get all the way back to normal.”

Katie’s treatment ended when she was junior and she has had a great senior year. In the tradition of the theater, she kissed the stage with her fellow seniors and will graduate from Parkview High School in a few weeks. She plans on attending Valdosta State in the fall where she will study communications. As for a career, she is leaning toward writing and she is also interested in politics. In whatever she does, Katie hopes to shine a light on issues related to pediatric cancer.

“When I was in treatment, I didn’t plan for the future at all,” Katie explained. “We had to take everything one day at a time until it was over. I didn’t really think about college. I won’t know anyone at Valdosta State and that’s a little intimidating – but I will be just another freshman there and don’t have to be ‘that cancer girl’ anymore.”

Katie’s strength and determination have set her up for success in whatever field she chooses. Many childhood cancer survivors will be graduating both high school and college this month and we applaud their accomplishment. Our goal is for every child diagnosed with cancer to overcome their sickness and get back to normal… just like Katie.

Crossing the Finish Line

In this disposable world, very few things seem to last 25 years. But when something touches enough people’s lives it becomes engrained in the very fabric of the community. So it is with Lauren’s Run. On April 28 we celebrated the 25th Lauren’s Run and CURE Childhood Cancer Annual Picnic. The first running was in 1992 after the Zagoria family lost their beautiful daughter, Lauren, at the age of 2. In 2001, another Atlanta toddler, Lauren Kochman, passed away after battling neuroblastoma and the Kochman family joined the Lauren’s Run efforts in 2002. Today we run in memory of both Lauren’s – as well as in honor of the thousands of other children who have fought childhood cancer.

This year’s race started off in spectacular fashion as a beautiful double rainbow greeted us at the Concourse Office Park. The temperatures were perfect as runners began to arrive and warm up for the 5k. After the winners were announced and medals presented, the founders of the original race were honored and recognized as VIPs and the mothers of the two Laurens shared their emotions as they considered how much has been accomplished in their daughters’ legacies.

In the crowd was a special little boy named Knox. Knox and his parents were preparing to run the 2k. Although he is only seven, he’s traveled a long road to get to this point.

His journey started very early. As other boys his age were starting to walk and become rambunctious balls of energy, Knox refused to walk and was oddly sedate.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” said his mother, Kimberly. “We took him to several different doctors and got all kinds of opinions. They finally landed on synovitis – a virus that affects hip movement and told me it would run its course. I wasn’t sure, but miraculously he started walking and we thought his health scare was over.”

Knox’s newfound vigor lasted for six months when he refused to walk again. At the stubborn insistence of his parents, Knox was given an MRI which revealed a neuroepithelial spinal tumor – a tumor so rare that it was only the 9th diagnosed at CHOA. He was scheduled for immediate surgery during which Knox’s surgeon scraped every bit of the tumor he could find. A tiny portion remains, but it has never grown or caused him problems since. After a very tricky year of chemotherapy, Knox’s treatment was complete. But there are lasting effects.

“There were moments during our journey where we had no idea if Knox would ever be able to run let alone walk having a spinal tumor,” Kimberly relayed. “We have watched him since he was a baby learning to walk, try to figure out how to cope with it. He trips often, calls himself slow, has been made fun of and looks different when he runs. It never breaks his spirit.

“Today marked a huge milestone in our family’s life as we watched our son cross the finish line in his first 2K. To watch him dig deep today, stop to rest and talk with his friend Lake who is in Heaven, and persevere to finish strong melted my heart. I have learned so many life lessons from these sweet kids. If you had asked me yesterday if he would have been able to do this I would have bet no. It’s a testament to the fact that you can truly break any barrier and do anything you set your mind, heart and soul to do.”

Knox’s resilience represents the spirit and hope we celebrate at Lauren’s Run and the CURE Childhood Cancer Annual Picnic. It is a spirit of a community committed to conquering pediatric cancer and it cannot be denied. To date, Lauren’s Run has raised more than $4.4 million in the fight. Some of the original research funded in its early years is now frontline therapy for children fighting cancer. Children like Knox – who deserve the opportunity to cross the finish line.

 

Watch Knox cross the finish line at Lauren’s Run:

A Grandmother’s Lap

There is nothing like a grandmother’s lap. Warmth, comfort, unmerited praise, and unlimited protection are found in that special place. It is a happy land of yes when the rest of the world shouts no.

Diane Rochester knows all about having grandchildren in her lap. Diane hails from Salem, Alabama. She has two adult children and now she loves to read, work in various ministries at her church, and garden with her husband. Most of all, she loves her family and adores being a grandmother.

The first to call her that name was Noah. Noah was born in an orphanage in Vietnam in 2000. After a long adoption process, he finally came home to his family when he was four months old. The entire family fell in love with him immediately.

“He was just the sweetest baby,” Diane said. “My daughter and her husband were so proud of him. As he grew up they loved to ride bikes and camp out together as a family.”

But at the age of seven, some red spots on his neck took them to the emergency room where they discovered that Noah had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Noah would spend the next seven years fighting cancer. He reached remission twice during that time. But relapsed when he was twelve.

“He needed a bone marrow transplant but because of his heritage, we knew a donor would be hard to find,” Diane explained. “We finally found a match, though. He spent Christmas in the bone marrow transplant unit and we were very hopeful.”

Unfortunately, an infection set in that Noah’s weakened immune system couldn’t fight. He succumbed to the disease on Feb 14, 2013, devastating his entire family and breaking Diane’s grandmother’s heart.

“I’ve never cried so much in my life as when we lost that sweet boy,” she recalled.

Just two months later, Diane’s son had a little boy and they named him Ashton. Nothing could ever take Noah’s place, of course. But Diane was ready to have another baby in her lap.

“Ashton is a sweet boy, too” Diane doted. “He loves to swim and play pretend. He’s also very independent. He likes to do his own thing!”

Ashton’s mother was not a U.S. citizen and began having immigration difficulties that prevented her from becoming a naturalized citizen. In early 2018, she made the decision to return to Mexico while they continued the process of obtaining a visa. When school ended, Ashton flew to Mexico to spend the summer with his mother. While he was there, sickness forced a hospital visit where an MRI revealed a tumor on his kidney. His father immediately joined him in Mexico and brought him back to the U.S. for treatment.

“We were in shock,” Diane said. “Can you imagine – two grandsons with cancer? Ashton was only five and the tumor had grown to the size of a cantaloupe. They had to remove it and one of his kidneys, too.”

The tumor was a Wilm’s tumor – the most common type of kidney cancer in children. After successful surgery, Ashton began chemotherapy designed to prevent the cancer’s return. He has been going once a week for outpatient treatment. There was a rough patch when he had chemo and radiation combined, but he is finished with radiation and soon to be finished with treatment completely. Diane says that he bounces back quickly each week and is doing well and ready to get back to kindergarten.

“People think childhood cancer is rare,” Diane said. “But that’s simply not the case. If you think it is, this is one grandmother who can set you straight.”

 

Ashton and his family on CNN:

 

Looking at Dee-Lenna

Dee-Lenna has a sparkling personality and a joy that shines through whether you’ve known her for years or just been introduced. She is a freshman at Georgia Southern University and is studying to be a nurse. She has always wanted to be a nurse, although she recently narrowed her choice of specialty to pediatric oncology – which is slightly ironic because she didn’t know what an oncologist was until her senior year of high school.

After fevers, chills, and weight loss drove her to seek medical attention, Dee-Lenna was seen by several specialists while waiting for a diagnosis. The doctor who kept coming back was an oncologist. His presence alarmed her family, but he was just another in a series of doctors to Dee-Lenna. It was the oncologist who finally revealed the problem: Stage Four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“Everyone in the room was crying except for me and my brother,” Dee-Lenna said. “I was shocked and scared, but I felt more of a relief because we finally knew what was wrong with me.”

Her treatment started right away and consisted of several months of chemotherapy and radiation.

“Radiation was the easiest part, and I didn’t really mind losing my hair,” she recalled. “But the chemo was awful. It made me so sick all the time, and once I spent four days in the ICU.”

Her medical treatment was only half the battle. Because of the side effects, Dee-Lenna was forced to miss most of her senior year of high school, and she fought emotional battles that threatened to shatter her self-esteem.

“I’ve never cried so much in my life. To the public eye, I was the strong teenage girl who wouldn’t let cancer take over her life. But behind closed doors, I was a mess. I honestly think that because I portrayed myself to be okay 24/7 despite undergoing treatment, people actually believed it. I felt like I was crying for help, but no one could hear me. Sometimes, not even family.”

While she was able to attend prom and graduation, she missed out on almost everything else. But friends did everything they could to keep her from feeling left out. Through the entire journey, her classmates and community were always behind her. Students from the senior class put together a prayer vigil for her during their senior skip day, and they all showed up on school grounds. And there were constant parties for her: parties to celebrate the end of chemo, the end of radiation, her eighteenth birthday, and even a head-shaving party. They celebrated everything together and watched as the days passed until her treatment was finally over.

Dee-Lenna achieved remission in July 2017 and finished treatment around the same time she walked the aisle as a high school graduate. She credits her friends, family, and specifically her mother for helping her through her cancer ordeal.

“Mom was my biggest supporter from day one,” she beamed. “It was a hard year, but I know my God didn’t bring me this far just to leave me. You’re looking at a Stage Four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Survivor!”

 

 

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