Competing for a cure
Celeste Williams was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on her fifth birthday. She spent 846 days in chemotherapy and had several spinal taps, blood transfusions and surgeries before she was considered "cured."
"I got an infection related to bubonic plague and had so much bone damage from chemo that they thought I wouldn't be able to walk," says Williams, a Lakeridge High School sophomore. "While I am now considered cured of cancer, the effects are with me every day."
Henrik Hunt, also a Pacer sophomore, found out on his 13th birthday that his mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Since then, she has spent 23 nights in the hospital and has endured 25 months of treatment, undergoing many therapies.
Williams and Hunt are not alone, of course. An estimated 1.3 million people in the United States are living with, or are in remission from, leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. And according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer approximately every three minutes.
To fight back, LLS has created a variety of programs to fund blood cancer research, education and patient services — and now the organization has recruited Williams, Hunt and nine other teams of high school students from across the Portland metro area to take part.
On Jan. 11, LLS officially kicked off its fifth-annual Students of the Year campaign with a reception and lab tour at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. From now through March 4, the student-led teams will send letters, host events and find other ways to creatively earn as many 'votes' as possible, all while raising awareness of blood cancer and the patient support available through LLS.
Each dollar they raise will count as one vote, and the team with the most votes will win the grand prize — a $2,500 college scholarship. Last year, local teams raised just shy of $90,000; the national total exceeded $6 million.
"This kind of campaign is really targeting people who are outgoing and want to really make a difference on the cancer landscape," says Lake Oswego resident Julie Davidson, the senior campaign manager for LLS, "so we look for people who are well-connected within their networks, creative, unafraid to ask, have a strong reason for wanting to do it — whether it's a personal connection or they just know they're in a position to be able to help and choose to do so."
In addition to Willams and Hunt (Team Cancer Crushers), this year's competitors include another pair from Lakeridge, Caroline Pahl and Lindley Patton (Team X-Out Cancer), and West Linn High seniors Emily Fogg and Abby Manley (Team Be The Change). Other teams hail from Aloha, Bend Senior, Cleveland, Lincoln, Oregon Episcopal, Tigard and Wilson high schools.
All together, they hope to raise $100,000.
Lakeridge junior Lily Barna was a candidate last year and is now part of the LLS Leadership Committee that helps recruit candidates. She's also serving as a mentor for the two Lakeridge teams.
"A friend of one of our teammates got diagnosed with leukemia and he was a baseball player, (so) our team name was Combat Cancer with a little baseball bat," Barna says. "You definitely learn a lot through the seven weeks about how to plan an event and what to do. Sometimes you have to troubleshoot, but I met some amazing people who helped me fundraise and helped me figure out things to do.
"I just knew that I wasn't done with LLS after that," says Barna, who won a Citizenship Award and a $1,000 scholarship last year, "so I told them, 'You guys are kind of stuck with me.'"
This is not the first go-around for West Linn's Fogg and Manley, either. Both supported a team last year because one of their friends was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma, and they loved the contest so much that they've come back with their own team.
"I am hoping to raise as much money as possible. This fundraiser has never been about winning for me," Manley says. "I want to make an impact, especially for the children with these blood cancers. I want to gain a leadership role as well, but I mainly want to reach to many communities, raise awareness and raise money."
Fogg agrees and says she is also looking forward to gaining knowledge about blood cancers.
"Once you do this campaign, you get hooked and want to do it again," Fogg says. "My team members and I are ready to come back strong and help raise money for this cause."
This year's campaign is the first for Lakeridge's Williams and Hunt, but they are no less committed to the cause.
"There's a lot of side effects from the chemotherapy and I don't want other children to have to go through the same thing as I did, so I want there to be better treatments," Williams says. "And all the money raised goes toward cancer research."
She says that the goal for her team is to raise more than $15,000, and they've already hit the ground running with fundraisers planned at restaurants and lectures.
Lakeridge's Pahl says she's looking forward to fundraising at her mom's Lake Oswego yoga studio, Twist Yoga.
"I'm excited for the two yoga classes that my mom is teaching to raise money, because they're always fun themes and people really enjoy them," says Pahl, adding that she was inspired to be part of Students of the Year because her dad won the LLS Man of the Year contest in 2014.
Similar to Students of the Year, the Man and Woman of the Year contests give adults 10 weeks to raise funds, starting in March and running through mid-May. In exchange, Davidson says, they receive "bragging rights" instead of scholarships. But the goal, she says, is still the same.
"Many of the cures we've helped fund have been used to treat other cancers," Davidson says. "A dollar invested with LLS has a much wider ripple effect than you would think at first glance."
"Many people are in this for the scholarship money, but I am in this because I want to make a change in the world and this is such a good start," Fogg says. "I hope that I can show underclassmen here at WLHS that this is something they should do as well, and I want to leave a legacy with this high school and encourage the underclassmen to find a way to make a change as well."
For more information on each team and to donate, visit www.studentseries.org/content/oswim-chapter-students-of-the-year.