Teenagers are not always known for their sense of perspective. Elizabeth is the exception to the rule.
The source of Elizabeth’s perspective is cancer – specifically, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), first diagnosed when she was 10 years old. Aggressive treatment put the disease in remission after a month, while Elizabeth continued active treatment for two-and-a-half years, pushing through the chemotherapy pills and check-ups while trying to “be a normal kid.” She was approaching the milestone of five years in remission – the point when she would be considered cured – when things started to change.
“It was winter. I had a bunch of colds and some swelling in my neck that my pediatrician thought was mono,” Elizabeth said. But her oncologist was wary and moved up her routine exam by a few days. “On the drive there, I kept telling myself this wasn’t going to be cancer again. But after we got there, I knew by how concerned my doctor was that it was back.
“At first, I was more mad about being sick than anything. Everything was on track – school, my friends – and I didn’t want to be sick. I was frustrated and sad. I didn’t think it was fair.”
Elizabeth’s mother, Maureen, said, “We were dumbfounded. Her doctors consulted with several top hospitals, and none had ever seen a recurrence after such a long remission.” Because of the recurrence, following the same treatment was not an option.
They decided that a marrow transplant was the best option for Elizabeth. As is often the case, Elizabeth’s only sibling was not a match, so her doctors decided to perform a dual-unit cord blood transplant.
Maureen prepared to be away from home for nearly three months while Elizabeth received two weeks of daily chemotherapy infusions and eight doses of total body radiation in preparation for transplant.
For Elizabeth, “It was mental prep. I just did it. I knew what I had to do. My mom told me that medicine only does half the work. When your mind gives up, your body gives up. So I had to be optimistic and get through it. I told myself, no matter what happens, stick it out. It’s for the best.”
Elizabeth’s transplant and recovery went without a hitch. In all, Elizabeth missed about a year of school, but completed class work with the dedication and support of her school and teachers, who developed plans that allowed her to work from home. When she returned to school midway through her junior year, she rejoined the track teams, and her senior year rejoined the tennis team and was elected class president. She recently celebrated both her high school graduation and the second anniversary of her transplant.
“I’m not happy I was sick, but it changed me,” Elizabeth said. “I have a new perspective on life. I knew there were people who had it worse than I did… Cancer can be seen as a blessing.”
Elizabeth is looking forward to this fall and the next phase of her life: college. “It’s been hitting me lately what I’ve been through. I did all that, I stayed in the moment,” she says. “I’m ready to move ahead!”
To the parents who decided to donate the cord blood that gave her another chance, she said, “I would definitely say thank you. I’d tell them how far I’ve come in two years, that it’s two years I might not have gotten. To help someone live and give them a better quality of life… it’s the greatest thing you can do. They probably did it because they’re nice people, but I would want them to understand that it affected more than just me: my friends, my family … they would all be different without me.”
Maureen says she has changed, too. “I try to live with more gratitude and acceptance,” she said. “I’ve learned never to dwell on things that might upset my day. They say you’re supposed to live for every second – that’s easy to say, but hard to do. You need to try and you’ve got to focus. Your whole life can change in a moment.”