How do humor, optimism and excellent medical care help this teen face challenges?
The chemo made her do it.
Originae Brown has decided that this is one time in her life when she has a foolproof excuse for any personal shortcoming. The vivacious teen claims she can blame almost anything on the chemotherapy she receives as part of her treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“If I forget something, I can just say, ‘Oh, it’s that chemo—it makes me forget things,’” she says, flashing a mischievous smile. In fact, while undergoing treatment for the bone cancer osteosarcoma, the 15-year-old has been writing a rap song titled “Blame It on the Chemo.” It’s one way she can thumb her nose at the disease that has temporarily interrupted her life.
Originae doesn’t complain about her situation; she’s confident that a positive attitude, steadfast faith and excellent medical care will carry her through.
“I don’t want any sympathy or pity, because I know I’m going to come out of here 100 percent fine,” Originae says.
A home away from home
Originae’s journey to St. Jude began in the seventh grade, when the energetic young athlete experienced pain in her right leg during volleyball, softball and cheerleading activities.
“She was misdiagnosed for more than a year by our local doctors,” says Originae’s mom, Shandell Brown.
Finally, tests revealed a mass in Originae’s right knee, and doctors referred her to St. Jude.
Her family quickly felt at ease.
“I had never been to a facility where everyone was so friendly and open and compassionate—from the receptionists to security to the housing staff,” Shandell says. “They made us feel like we had a home away from home. We didn’t even have to stress about the cost of housing, food, airfare or medical bills. I immediately realized that we had made the best decision to have our daughter’s treatment here.”
At St. Jude, Originae enrolled in the OS2008 protocol, which combined standard chemotherapy with the addition of a novel drug called bevacizumab. This antibody stops tumor growth by preventing the VEGF protein from stimulating new blood vessel formation in the tumor. Originae learned that this treatment would be followed by a limb-sparing operation and additional chemotherapy.
Her St. Jude oncologist, Wayne Furman, MD, warned the teen that the journey would be long.
“This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” he told her.
“No, not for me,” she replied. “I’m going to sprint through this cancer treatment.”
In August of 2012, Originae underwent an operation in which surgeon Michael Neel, MD, removed the diseased bone and replaced it with a prosthetic bone. Through the following months, Originae worked with St. Jude Rehabilitation Services staff to regain the use of her leg while undergoing additional chemotherapy treatments.
During a trip home for Thanksgiving, the teen developed a life-threatening infection in her leg. She was rushed by ambulance back to Memphis, where she underwent surgery to remove the infection.
Originae also became extremely sensitive to the chemotherapy drug methotrexate, which causes mucositis, a painful inflammation of the membranes lining the entire gastrointestinal tract. Her treatment was delayed several times because of this complication.
“In December, I spent three weeks in the hospital because of mucositis,” she recalls. “It was horrible. I couldn’t hold down food, and I was burned from the top to the bottom. My fingers and toes even burned from the chemo.”
Attitude of gratitude
Incredibly, Originae kept on smiling—even when the mucositis prevented her from speaking.
For Christmas, she gave specific instructions to her family: “I don’t want anything; I have everything I could possibly want,” she told them. “Just make a donation to St. Jude.”
The teen has become a self-appointed happiness ambassador.
“It’s my job to make people happy around here,” she says with a grin. “If I see someone who’s down, I’m definitely going to talk to them.”
Originae has also become a resource for staff, who understands the power of a peer.
“Originae is the life of the party, but she’s also humble and thoughtful and reflective,” says Jessika Boles of the St. Jude Child Life program.
At one of the hospital’s teen activities last year, Boles observed that other teens were drawn to Originae, who offered sound advice about topics ranging from dealing with nausea to navigating the social scene.
Originae says she has become stronger and more confident during her journey through cancer. She has also learned a few lessons: “I’ve learned that life is bigger than the small things,” she says. “I’ve learned not to take life for granted. And I’ve learned that you should never give up. Just smile and keep going.”
And when she runs into a problem or challenge? That’s easy: Blame it on the chemo.
Abridged from Promise, Spring 2013
Editor's note: Originae lost her battle with cancer August 8, 2016.