|Danel Lawrence, Seattle, Washington|
When Danel Lawrence was hospitalized for months at age 15 with leukemia, friends wall-papered his hospital room with homemade posters of Britney Spears, made him 2,000 origami cranes and visited every day, just to hang out.
"I had to learn to live in that room …" says Danel. "One of the best parts of my day was when my friends would come and sit and watch movies with me."
Having contact with friends is extremely important to young patients, especially teenagers, says child life specialist Joanne Patten, who helps young patients both at Seattle Children's and at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. "Most teens are very social and like to be around friends who have similar interests," says Patten.
"When a teen is seriously ill they often feel isolated from their peers--they miss school functions, parties, driving and so on. When peers keep in touch with a seriously ill friend it helps that friend remain connected to the outside world, which helps them feel less isolated."
Even though Danel was receiving chemotherapy treatment, Patten says, his friends were allowed to come by during visiting hours as long as they did not have colds. "The reasoning for this is to allow pediatric patients a more normal life in a 'not-so-normal' environment. When a teen is admitted to the hospital they are asked once again to give up some independence and become dependent on the adults around them. Having friends visit helps teens have some control."
In addition to child life specialists, Children's has programs just for adolescents and staff who are trained specifically to help teenagers cope with hospitalization and a serious illness.
Danel, an upbeat yet thoughtful boy, lives on Mercer Island with his mom, Wendy Lawrence, step-dad, Russ Kristek, and a 95-pound German shepherd named Tookie. An only child, Danel says he is especially close to his mom, who is employed at Microsoft Corp. and is studying to become a lawyer. Posters of Britney Spears crowd the walls of his bedroom, and a framed photo of Danel with Spears sits on top of the piano. (The Make-A-Wish Foundation sent Danel to New York to meet Spears in October 2003.)
Danel was at track practice during his sophomore year of high school when he started feeling bad. "I couldn't run as hard as I had the week before," he says. "I was fatigued. And throwing up. I just wanted to sleep. And my mom said, 'There's something wrong with you.'"
Wendy Lawrence took Danel to see his pediatrician, who sent them directly to Seattle Children's. Danel was hospitalized immediately and began chemotherapy that same day. "I didn't come home," Danel says. "It was weird, it was so sudden."
The diagnosis? Acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a cancer of the blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and lymph nodes. Danel recalls that doctors told his mother he would be dead within eight weeks without treatment.
Doctors typically treat AML in children with chemotherapy. They may follow this with a stem cell transplant if the child has a matched sibling donor or a match is found with an unrelated donor. But Danel is an only child, and he responded well to the new chemotherapy regimen he received in a clinical trial, so a transplant wasn't necessary.
Besides, Danel says, his mother was leery of the procedure. "My mom saw the transplant as a last resort," he says. His mother and doctors agreed he would receive only chemotherapy for the time being. "If the disease comes back, then I could have a transplant," Danel says.
Between April 2002 and January 2003, Danel was treated with chemotherapy as an inpatient at Seattle Children's. Even with the support of clinical nutritionists, he lost 45 pounds off his 5' 8 1/2" frame during that time.
Four weeks into treatment he had surgery to remove a quarter of his left lung. "Danel had developed a fungal infection in his lung during his initial treatment," his mother says.
What got him through it
Danel says that the support he received from the students, his counselor and teachers at Seattle Preparatory School helped him get through cancer treatment. "They gave me support and a sense of community that I couldn't find anywhere else," Danel says.
Seattle Children's has teachers who coordinate the education of young patients who are hospitalized long-term, and Danel worked with a tutor at Seattle Children's two days a week to keep up with his school assignments during the six or seven months of school he missed. "My friends would deliver my work to the teachers," he says. Danel says his counselor suggested the possibility of repeating the school year, but he very much wanted to graduate with his class, and the school made that happen.
In addition to the friends who visited him daily, other students at school wrote him letters and folded paper cranes, some with messages written inside. "It helped me keep my balance," Danel says, "knowing that people cared about what was going on with me."
Danel also spoke with other people who had gone through cancer treatment. He adds, "I wanted to see what their experience was. I asked how they dealt with it. And they said, 'Attitude--attitude is a big part, how you look at it …'
Looking back from the perspective of one and a half years, Danel has some advice for teens who are facing a cancer diagnosis, and some advice for their parents.
To other teens, he says, surround yourself with friends, even when you don't feel well. "Having people around you is one of the best things," he says. "It gives you hope that things will get better. And laughing, that's good. And just being around your friends."
Danel suggests that parents speak with a counselor or social worker to help them deal with their child's illness. "Mom saw a social worker at Children's," he says, "and I think that helped."
Wendy Lawrence agrees. "I think because you just don't know what to expect," she says. "It basically hits you out of the blue, and you're looking at one of the most precious things in the world to you maybe not living. The counselor was very helpful to me in getting through that and telling me what to expect and what not to expect."
Danel says he bounced back after treatment in just a few months. An athlete, he attributes his quick recovery to having been in great physical shape before he got sick.
For now, Danel sees his medical team for follow-up appointments, and that's it. He's happy and healthy and will graduate from college at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California in 2009.
Danel says having leukemia changed him: "I'm more appreciative of people I have in my life. I'd never had anything bad happen to me before. It sounds strange, but it was one of the best experiences I've had for personal and spiritual growth."