FARGO, North Dakota — The story begins on a sheet of ice. This is where Paige Lazorenko, a daughter of the north, first realized her fearlessness. Her toughness. Her love of going fast and winning. And like all good heroes, this one needed a costume — a suit of armor. In this case it was a jersey: No. 7.
In that oversized, green-and-white jersey, as comfortable to her as a second skin, Paige came alive. She skated fast. She scored. She saw her team rack up victory after victory.
But even armor has its weak spots. When Paige was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma in her junior year of high school — just months after her team played in the state championship — she hung up No. 7 for good.
At St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a thousand miles from home, family and friends, she found a place safe to let people and sympathy and empathy in.
So when it came to a special moment off the ice — one, instead, on the red carpet — it was time for a new skin. “I still have the prom dress,” Paige said. It’s the costume of a second act in a tale of childhood ended all too soon.
Hanging today in the closet alongside No. 7 is a delicate accompaniment to the coarse jersey. The yellow dress has a strength all its own with the back cut low enough to reveal the scars of cancer treatment.
In the hockey jersey, Paige skated through life fearlessly, concerned only with the defense and numbers ticking up on the scoreboard. As a young woman made over for prom amidst fear and uncertainty, she came to understand generosity and care, and met a new team she couldn’t have known anyplace else.
‘You just go’
“I grew up loving hockey,” Paige said.
In Grand Forks, winter was more homeland than wonderland, and Paige was no stranger to snow and ice and temperatures in the single, even negative, digits. “That’s why I loved living in North Dakota, because it was always hockey season.”
But it wasn’t enough to just cheer her beloved University of North Dakota from the stands. And while the figure skates her father bought her might have fit her feet, they did not fit her personality. Paige needed more, she needed to be part of the action. So at 7 years old, when her family moved to Fargo, she joined a community co-ed team and shined as a center.
“Speed was my thing,” she said. “I wasn’t very good at stick-handling or shooting or anything, but I could skate super-fast, so my coach was like, ‘Okay, we’re just going to put you in the middle and you just skate, you just go.”
And go she did. Tucked into her jersey, the protective gear practically doubling her slight weight, Paige met the sport head on and without fear.
The game is a family concern. Watching his daughter and only child push off from the boards to move the puck across the rink, her dad relived his own childhood. Today, still, Don Lazorenko gets excited reminiscing about his daughter’s achievements. He explains to the uninitiated that a goal assist, just as a goal scored, is worth one point. Paige, he said, was the number one scorer in her league.
But worry and celebration sit side-by-side in the stands when you’re a parent. “I got nervous a lot of times when she’d go down,” Don said. “She got taken out on a stretcher one time. It’s a rough sport, but that’s what she wanted to do.”
For years Paige skated through community leagues and high school teams. No. 7 was packed again and again for tournaments throughout the Midwest and into Canada where she made friends and memories along the way.
More than fun and exercise, sports provide life lessons in teamwork and perseverance and commitment. Years of playing hockey taught Paige the ups and downs of winning and losing. But what happened next was a defeat she never expected.
Don remembers it as something simple. An innocuous pain for a girl who’d had her scrapes with bruises and concussions on the ice. “She said, ‘Dad, when I sit back in class there’s a mole on my back that hurts.’”
A dermatologist visit would eventually lead to a diagnosis of stage 3 melanoma, and the end of her hockey career.
‘You’re not going home’
Shrouded in her jersey, protected inside the relative safety of a hockey arena and out of the sun, the diagnosis was the ultimate body check against the boards for 17-year-old Paige.
But while rare, childhood melanoma is the most common skin cancer in pediatric patients, and accounts for up to 6 percent of all cancers in 15-to-19-year-olds.
Rare enough, in fact, that her North Dakota doctor was not comfortable treating it, as were doctors elsewhere. So she was sent to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis — average winter temperature in the 50s, and where the sport of choice is played on hardwood rather than ice.
Her St. Jude doctor said to plan a two-week stay for testing. “After a week or so he said, ‘You’re not going home,’” Paige said.
For her dad, this was, of course, much worse than watching his little girl fall on the ice. “It was nerve-wracking,” said the life-long truck driver whose battle with broken bones as a child had scuttled his own early hockey dreams. “But St. Jude is just a fantastic facility and a friendly environment.”
Hospital beds and pain were nothing new for her, but this is where Paige’s childhood skids from the ice. As a young child she had surgery to correct scoliosis and suffered “mild concussions” in the rink. At 13, compartment syndrome in her right leg, a condition where bleeding in the muscle can build dangerous pressure and cut off all circulation, landed her in the emergency room and emergency surgery.
As challenging as those issues were, this diagnosis and distance would be a whole new and unexpected experience.
Red carpet treatment
Paige was used to being photographed. No. 7 speeding down the ice. No. 7 advancing the puck. No. 7 cheering and being cheered.
But a stroll down the red carpet for the St. Jude Prom is a different field of play. The cell phones of moms and dads, siblings and grandparents held aloft to capture this milestone — one that was never guaranteed, never taken for granted — is a more emotional and exultant scene than even a state championship game.
That evening in her donated dress, yellow and bejeweled, with her date who had flown down from Fargo to surprise her, she might have felt vulnerable in her new skin. But then she turns — it is a red carpet after all, and there are cameras — and the surgical scars are there. This armor was empowering, perhaps even more than the jersey.
Paige is grateful today for those who took time to give the girls makeovers, for the distraction and laughter that go along with those moments.
She’s grateful for her new team, the community of parents, some not much older than her, who took time to explain what it was they were feeling, the fear they — like her own dad — carried for their kids. She’s grateful for those “kids that are going through so much but a lot of them still have a smile on their face.”
“When you say ‘cancer,’” Paige said, “that was the hard thing to understand. Going from normal things to a place where every child is fighting for their life and their families are going through it, too.”
The most difficult challenge she faced — by far the most dangerous — didn’t happen on the ice. And as frightening as it was without her armor, the optimism of her community, of the patients and their parents in the face of so much uncertainty, was uplifting then and continues to inform her own attitude today.
In remission for five years, Paige is 23 now, returns to St. Jude for regular checkups and markets skin care products as an Instagram influencer, the gritty hockey player softened by filters, experience and years of cancer treatment.
While she may have retired No. 7, her competitive spirit is still intact, though, she says, in a “soft, loving way. I would say I’m more passionate with everything, no matter what I’m doing in life, and that comes from being strong, confident and proud. You have to be when you go through things like that.”
In this, her dad echoes her early coach: “She’s a go-getter … She’s a firecracker, I’m lucky to have her.”
Through social media, Paige shares her experience with melanoma and her journey to St. Jude. She still has the desire to “just go” but it’s in a different direction now — one less combative and more nurturing, to make sure anyone she comes in contact with understands the importance of maintaining their health and knowing their strengths.
“I want to make sure I leave a mark with anybody when I get the chance to talk with them and let them know they’re strong enough and worthy enough and can get through anything that comes their way.”
So, just as she did on the ice, Paige recognizes the value of an assist.