Giving back: Young cancer survivor wants to help others

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

When Michelle Palmer sat in a Seattle hospital's waiting room for children, none of the other kids had hair and she wondered what she was doing there.

Three days later, just before her 12th birthday, Palmer was diagnosed with leukemia. She would undergo months of chemotherapy and its side effects of nausea and weakness, as well as bone marrow transplants that made her throat painfully sore.

Now 18, still low on energy, she's been free of cancer for several years. But she wants to return to a hospital, of all places, this time to help children who are ill.

Palmer graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in June and will attend the University of Alaska Southeast this fall on two scholarships, with the goal of transferring to a school that awards degrees in recreational therapy.

She'd like to be the sort of child life specialist, as hospitals call the position, who comforted her while she was in Seattle. Those specialists play with ill children and help them understand their medical treatment.

"With the energy level the way it was, you didn't always feel good enough to be a kid," Palmer said. "Oftentimes, other kids were just as sick and feeling as bad as you were, and obviously we didn't feel up to playing." But the specialists could find something the kids felt up to doing.

"I wouldn't wish (the experience with cancer) on my worst enemy, but I wouldn't change it for anything," Palmer said. "Cancer's obviously not fun or something you enjoy, but I can't imagine what I would be if I hadn't gone through it. It changed me.

"It made me aware of what life was really about, which may seem kind of hard for a 12-year-old, and I suppose it was. I appreciate so much more."

Palmer missed the sixth and seventh grades and attended Floyd Dryden Middle School part time in eighth grade. When friends talked about not getting along with siblings or others, it didn't seem like a big deal to Palmer.

"I knew how precious life was. I knew that every day was special. And school was a privilege, and family was a privilege, and they were things to be cherished," she said.

Despite feeling tired at times, Palmer was active in high school, participating in the Link crew that helps freshmen get oriented, singing in the choir and serving as an art teacher's aide. She and her family are members of the Douglas Island Bible Church, but she also helps out with Chapel by the Lake's youth group.

"Over the last couple of years she's about as faithful a helper as I've had," said Toby Lockhart, the youth director at Chapel by the Lake.

"For a high school student, she's very mature," he said. "I think her bout with cancer had a lot to do with that. When other kids are thinking about the opposite sex, she's fighting for her life."

At the youth meetings, Palmer leads a group of eighth-grade girls in discussions of the Bible.

She also helped the church organize this year's team for the Relay for Life, an all-night fund-raiser to combat cancer. Palmer chose the team's theme, "all aboard for a cure," built a mock cruise ship to decorate the team's tent and came up with sailor hats and Hawaiian leis for the kids, Lockhart said.

Helping others isn't new to Palmer. Shortly after returning to Juneau from her cancer treatments in Seattle, she organized a raffle of Beanie Babies to buy a TV, VCR and Nintendo for Bartlett Regional Hospital to entertain young patients, said her mother, Glenda Palmer.

But certainly the cancer and its treatments have cost something, too. Palmer, who loved soccer, had to give it up, giving up part of what had been her identity, her mother said.

"It was kind of redefining who she was," Glenda Palmer said. "She was kind of angry over the fact she had lost (soccer)."

Michelle eventually found interests in ceramics and kayaking. She owns two kayaks, one for herself and one to bring along a friend.

Palmer has won a $1,000 talent grant from UAS for the upcoming school year and a $500 scholarship from the Gastineau Rotary Club. She will ease into college with two art classes in her first semester and work part time in a doctor's office. She'll just have to see how much energy she has.

"Every day is an opportunity," Palmer said. "Each day is a gift. What you do with it is up to you. I think that's where giving back comes into it all."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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