It’s a new year and with it comes new resolutions. For many, resolutions are a way to develop new habits, improve their lives or to achieve long-standing goals. For some, resolutions are all about reaffirming their commitment to a belief or an ideal. At Hope & Heroes, we fall into the latter category and we have a resolution or two for 2017. One of which is to generate more awareness. And one way to do that is through sharing.
When we share stories from our patients, it increases our knowledge about childhood cancer and blood disorders, helps us understand the complex nature of these diseases and shows the human personalities that live life—day in and day out—with the courage, the fears and the challenges that these illnesses present. Sharing their experiences also keeps us resolved in our quest to treat children and find cures.
Read on to learn about Essence, a pediatric cancer survivor, and how she aspires to share her journey with other teens and the world.
In 2014, half-way through her senior year in high school, Essence White started feeling sick. A combination of persistent fatigue, nosebleeds, vomiting and headaches sent her to the doctor, who said she had the flu. As the symptoms continued and worsened, Essence took herself to the emergency room. Shortly afterward, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia or AML.
Hearing the words, “You have cancer” is life-changing. For Essence, the timing was especially tough. “I missed so much during my senior year. I didn’t go on my senior trip and I missed other senior activities, including my high school graduation.”
It took three rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplantation before Essence’s illness went into remission. The after effects of treatment caused her to experience other complications, including GVHD and an inability to walk. “I went into septic shock and my organs started to shut down,” she recalls. “After a few months in the hospital, I needed rehab for a month. But then I went into sepsis and had to stay in the hospital a little longer.”
For the budding actress and model, who attended a performing arts high school in the Bronx, the isolation of being in the hospital, away from friends and school, was difficult. But Essence was able to enjoy one rite of passage that most high school seniors look forward to – she attended her senior prom. “I had a blast,” she said. “Being in the hospital for so long, it was so good to get out, get dressed.”
During one of her many stays in the hospital, Essence was approached by New York-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital’s Poet-in-Residence, Thomas Dooley. He asked if she wanted to take part in a new publication called Wavelength, a magazine by teens and for teens. Being an avid writer of poetry, she said yes. “I’ve been writing poetry since I was a child. When I sat down with him, I wrote four poems in about 20 minutes,” said Essence.
The first issue of the magazine was published in the fall of 2016, with the assistance of Mr. Dooley, Child-Life specialists and the teens of C.H.A.T (Children’s Helping Advisory Team). Readers experienced the thoughts and feelings of teenagers—through art, poetry and creative writing—who undergo more than most adults ever will. Essence had two of her poems published in Wavelength and we asked her about one in particular.
“When I wrote “Out of the Fire,” I was comparing coming out of cancer to a horseshoe. When things are thrown into fire, they are melted and molded,” she said. “Cancer is the fire and you get thrown in, beat up and changed around. But you can come out of it as a new, stronger, more beautiful person.”
Looking forward to the future, Essence plans to enroll in college and pursue her dreams of becoming an actress and a model. But she admits that her journey has sparked a new interest—motivational speaking. Recently, Essence returned to her former high school and spoke to several groups of students. She enjoyed sharing her story; in fact, she wants to reach more audiences.
Asked what her message would be, Essence replied, “People are oblivious to their health, but they need to be proactive. When you are sick, you must explore all possibilities.” She wants to reach other children and teens, whether it’s at local schools or hospitals. “I think having cancer happened for a reason, it was meant to be my testimony. Maybe God gave me cancer to help inspire a nation. Now I am doing something great by inspiring schools, teachers, children, parents, even strangers.”
Hope & Heroes offers a variety of programs— such as counseling services, educational assistance, arts in medicine and survivor wellness programs– that are free of charge and available to patients just like Essence. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive treatment experience that gives every child the best chance of overcoming their disease and to lead healthy, happy lives!