It started out as double-vision, "which over a few days became steadily worse," recalls Kendra Smith, 18, of Orchard Park.
But she has survived the cancerous brain tumor and has gone on to give thanks this Thanksgiving week that she has been well enough to help create a line of greeting cards to benefit Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
"As strange as it sounds, I had no headaches, and nothing else was out of the ordinary. Up to that point, I was a healthy 16-year-old," she recalls.
When the cause of her blurry vision was pinpointed, Smith remembers that her "stomach dropped, and the tears fell like water. I didn't know what to expect."
Just a week after she had her first symptoms, she remembers being "in the hospital awaiting surgery. Everything happened so fast, it didn't have time to register."
Told about the brain tumor, her first thought was, "My hair.
"I was your typical 16-year-old -- my hair was everything to me," she said. "The doc told me I would not lose any hair for either of the surgeries. I was ecstatic."
But then Smith found out the tumor was cancerous, and she says she knew her "hair would be gone from the chemo and radiation.
"I had a mental breakdown at first and cried for the rest of the day," recounts the Orchard Park High School graduate.
Still, she says, "I wanted to live and knew I would beat this."
And she has, going on to help others with the same struggle.
Smith is one of the many patient-artists who have contributed to Roswell Park's holiday card collection. As the annual holiday card and gift collection enters its 15th year, the comprehensive cancer center's pediatric patients continue to deliver messages of hope through their art.
After the surgery to remove the tumor -- pineoblastoma -- in November 2002, Smith underwent six weeks of radiation, followed by eight months of chemotherapy, ending this January.
To show her gratitude, Smith -- along with sisters Emilie and Rebecca -- has contributed designs to this year's collection. She says the family's participation in the Paint Box Project brought the sisters closer together during a tough time.
During her last round of inpatient chemotherapy, Smith, now a communications student at Brockport State College, says she "was not feeling 100 percent." Her sisters had a free snow day away from school, she says, "and decided to spend the day with my mom and me, in the hospital."
There they met Ann Louise Ciminelli, Paint Box Project co-chairwoman.
Smith says, "Mrs. Ciminelli said she had some interesting things to keep us busy. She gave us a bunch of paper and colored pencils to make Christmas cards. This, of course, kept us busy for three days."
New cards also will appear "for other holidays throughout the year" plus all-occasion gift cards, Ciminelli said. The purpose -- raising more funds for Roswell Park cancer research.
Smith said that taking part in the project helped her recovery. "The Paint Box Project makes all of the kids feel very special. People are buying their artwork to send to loved ones. It's really cool -- like taking the patient to your home and sharing their story. It is an honor to be a part of it."
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