Class of '22Teen’s memories of high school include St. Jude cancer experience filled with grace notes
The white board in Angelina’s spic-and-span bedroom in Oregon contains a to-do list that tells the story of an ambitious teen in the waning weeks of her high school senior year:
• Finish essay.
• Study for AP Stat test.
• AP Psych notes.
• Finish senior project.
On one side of the board — apart from the rest of the list — is an additional item that can’t be crossed off easily. That’s because it’s not so much a task as it is an essay Angelina’s been writing in her head for years about her future and her dreams for it:
• Choose a college.
These words are written in curly script with blue marker and surrounded by a cloud shape. A green arrow with pink polka dots points to it. Around the cloud and the green arrow fly various butterflies. Around those butterflies are multicolored hearts.
“She’s always been driven,” said her mom, Linhda. “She always has a daily list going of things to do and she’s always marking things off.”
That’s the way she faced cancer treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, too. As a series of tasks, some of them very difficult, she had to approach with determination and optimism on the way to her larger goal of beating cancer.
Now she’s about to graduate high school with honors.
A generous and nice thing to do
Just before the pandemic lockdown during her sophomore year, Angelina had a lump below her left buttock that made it hurt when she sat down. She was diagnosed with stage IV alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue tumor that can arise virtually anywhere in the body.
Angelina told her parents it would all be OK. Her parents clung to the thread of their daughter’s hope, and two days after her biopsy, Angelina performed in a dance competition.
For a year, while the rest of the world was in some version of pandemic lockdown mode, Angelina underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy at St. Jude.
Knowing everyone was stuck inside and taking precautions for infection control made it somewhat easier for Angelina, she admits. The whole world had gone virtual.
She was able to keep in touch with friends through texting and social media. And then, of course, there were the letters from Angelina’s best friend, Mazie.
One letter for every week of Angelina’s full year of treatment. So Angelina would know that no matter how far apart they were and how different their experiences, Mazie was thinking about her and she cared.
“Even though she could text me, I thought it was such like a generous and nice thing to do. Because not a lot of people send letters, really,” said Angelina.
Knowing how to help
When someone shows such kindness, there’s almost no way to say thank you except by paying it forward. Angelina’s St. Jude experience has imbued her with a sixth sense for seeing people’s hurt — and knowing how to help.
“She’s always been my caring, empathetic kid,” said Linhda. “Now that’s even more true.”
Angelina’s lists have begun to include things she wants to do for other people.
Recently, Angelina found out one of her teachers has cancer and she decided to make a gift basket of items that had made her feel better when she was going through treatment. She went to the store and checked off her list:
• Oils and a diffuser (for relaxation).
• Ginger (for nausea).
• Candy and trail mix (for those days you can’t keep real food down but need an energy jolt).
• Goat milk lip balm (a favorite chapped-lips remedy).
She filled the basket and left it for her teacher along with a note like the kind Mazie would have sent, full of positive messages:
Hang in there. You’ve got this.
It turns out Angelina’s white board is a little out of date because she’s 99 percent sure she wants to go to a college in Oregon where her sister Sirena goes. She’ll be working toward a degree in elementary education — something she’s always wanted to do because she loves kids so much.
Mazie is going to a different college about 40 minutes away from Angelina’s, but they’ve got it all worked out. They’ll do sleepovers and attend each other’s parties. It’ll be twice the fun.
Angelina keeps the letters in her bedroom in a nondescript brown box.
Will she bring the letters from Mazie with her to college or leave them home?
If you open the box, you’ll see Angelina has kept every single letter from Mazie in its original envelope, and she’s tied them together with a white ribbon. She’s nestled the letter bundle in pink and white tissue within the box, the way a person does with precious things.
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