Teen cancer survivors share experience

Two local girls will be communicating what happened to them to 70 attending Girl Scout camp

Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Cancer strikes 11,000 American children a year. Andrea Sharp, 16, and Michelle Palmer, 18, both of Juneau, are sharing their experiences with cancer with more than 70 girls attending day camp this week, a camp sponsored by the Tongass Alaska Girl Scout Council.

The Day Camp 2003 is called Zink the Zebra. It is based on a book with the same title written by Kelly Weil, an 11-year-old girl who imagined the story when she was sick with cancer. Kelly lost her hair from medical treatments, and some of her friends didn't want to play with her. Zink the Zebra has a coat that is spotted instead of striped - but inside he is just another zebra.

Zink the Zebra camp focuses on teaching lessons about diversity and friendship, about tolerance of people who are different - and about making and keeping friends. The curriculum for the camp was developed by a Milwaukee foundation founded in memory of Kelly. The idea is that if girls can understand the welter of feelings of people with cancer, they can understand people who are different from them in any way, says Kathy Buss of the council.

Two of the Volunteer Aides at the camp, which runs June 24-28, are Andrea Sharp and Michelle Palmer. Both teens have survived cancer.

Out of the blue in January 2002, Sharp, 16, experienced severe abdominal pains and vomited blood. She was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian germ cell cancer. A tumor the size of a mini football had ruptured. The tumor was surgically removed at Children's Hospital in Seattle, she says. Then she was treated with four rounds of chemotherapy at Dornbecker Children's in Portland, Ore., while living with her uncle and his family.

Now Sharp will be monitored for five years with CAT scans every four months, and doctor's appointments every three months. "It ruptured but it didn't set up satellite tumors," she says. "I got off really easy as far as that goes."

She missed a semester of school but did correspondence work to catch up with classmates. Sharp is entering 11th grade at Juneau-Douglas High School in the fall.

Two weeks ago, Sharp was given a Make a Wish trip to Paris. Her whole family went along - her parents, Anna and Kelley Sharp, and her sister Jennifer, 19. Kelley Sharp works for the Alaska Division of Investments as a loan manager. Anna Sharp is a data processor with the Department of Fish and Game.

Sharp particularly enjoyed touring the Louvre and Givernais, and also her trip to Euro Disney.

"I never knew I had cancer," Sharp says. "They told me it was a benign tumor, and I never knew until the biopsy after my surgery. My parents didn't want me to get worked up about it." She thinks they made a good decision: "I am glad because I didn't have the 'worst case scenario' to mull over and over in my head. It felt like a dream because I was in Portland, not here with my friends."

Would she change her past if she could? "I personally wouldn't change getting cancer because it changed me and my priorities. It made me realize that life is very short and there is so much more that I could be doing," Sharp said. She has decided she wants to "help people and make a difference rather than being 'a regular old teenager.' "

After graduation from high school, she plans to become a registered nurse specializing in pediatric oncology, "because I had an awesome nurse who really made my day and I hope to be that to some child," she said.

Michelle Palmer, now 18, will be attending the University of Alaska Southeast as a freshman in the fall. She, too, says her outlook was changed by the experience of having cancer.

"Eventually I want to major in recreational therapy," Palmer says. "I want to get certified as a Child Life Specialist. A child life specialist uses art and games as therapy in a hospital. There was one at the hospital when I was a patient. She was like my friend. You had doctors and nurses who came in and poked you, but the therapist would explain procedures in a less threatening way than a doctor."

Palmer was diagnosed with AML (acute myeloid leukemia), a life-threatening disease in which cancerous cells replace normal cells in bone marrow. AML typically affects adults, but it affected Palmer when she was 11 and in the fifth grade. "I was recovering from mononucleosis, and I started running fevers and feeling tired; I had to take naps in the middle of the day," she recalls.

Palmer was treated first at Children's Hospital and then at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center in Seattle. Her treatment took eight long months and included chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. The experience made her want to "reach out to people," she says.

The first two or three years after her diagnosis and treatment, she became an over-achiever, she says, "Because I didn't want to be 'the girl with cancer' that everyone pitied. I didn't want to be labeled as someone who couldn't do certain things. But after three years of working my tail off, I decided I didn't need to do that; people would think what they were going to think no matter what I did."

As in a play based on Kelly Weil's illness, Palmer found that "People were coming up to me constantly asking 'How are you feeling?' It was easy to say, 'Oh, I'm doing fine,' even though my days were not really comfortable."

Zink the Zebra camp features songs and skits, games, discussions, crafts and snacks for girls entering first through sixth grades. The 2003 camp is completely booked, but this curriculum may be offered again next year. Parents who would like to be on the TAGS mailing list should call 586-1710 or e-mail tagsc@gci.net.

For information about the Zink the Zebra camp activity guide, the book, videos or other details, call Zink the Zebra Foundation, Inc., at 414 963-4484 or e-mail zinkz@bellsouth.net.

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