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A WINNING FIGHT WITH LEUKEMIA

Fresh blankets of snow covered the ground, and the crisp air was filled with festive carols, scents of nutmeg and the Christmas spirit.

The school holiday had just begun for 14-year-old Betsy Donner, and already anticipation was high for two weeks of fun with family and friends.

The morning of Dec. 23, 1996, began with what was supposed to be a checkup at her optician to investigate the double vision and headaches she was experiencing.

The symptoms were a cause for concern, and she was referred to a neurologist at Children's Hospital for a CAT scan, checking for the possibility of a brain tumor. That evening, she was hospitalized and scheduled for a bone marrow check the following day.

It was on that day, the day before Christmas, that the diagnosis was made.

Betsy had acute lymphocytic leukemia.

"They told my parents first because I was still sort of out of it," she recalls. "They told me when I came to. It didn't upset me at first."

On Christmas Day, Betsy began chemotherapy, and after undergoing tests and building her strength at Children's Hospital, she started treatment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

"I didn't feel bad for myself because too many others were feeling bad for me. I had to keep my spirits up to keep other people's spirits up, too," she explains. "From what the doctors were telling me, I knew I had a pretty good chance if I just stuck to the treatments."

Acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, is a disease in which there are too many lymphocytes, infection-fighting white blood cells, in the blood and bone marrow. The lymphocytes fight infections by producing antibodies. In ALL, the lymphocytes do not develop properly, and they reproduce more rapidly than normal. The result: an overcrowding of ineffective white blood cells, leaving no room for normal cells to grow and act efficiently.

The first month, Betsy spent getting chemotherapy shots and having them monitored in her system. Doctors feared that the cancer cells were also in her central nervous system, so Betsy had to undergo numerous spinal taps, in which fluids were removed from her spine, checked for cancer cells and treated with chemotherapy, then returned to her spine.

A second bone marrow test on Jan. 22, 1997, showed that Betsy was in remission.

Then came eight months of heavy chemotherapy at Roswell Park.

"I tried to make the best out of it because I knew if I sat there moping, it would be worse," she explained.

The chemotherapy routine often consisted of 72 hours of continuous injection through two ports of a catheter. During this period the spinal taps continued. The treatments often left her exhausted and caused pain in her eye area.

"I never got sick, though," she said, feeling fortunate to escape the nausea many cancer patients experience during "chemo."

The medical treatments also kept her from the activities of her normal, everyday life. Her days of school and being class president, dancing and outings with friends were replaced with hospital stays and watching videos on the couch.

"I think what got to me most was I'd call my friends and they would be out having fun and I wasn't there."

Betsy and her family managed to make the most of this time at home and in the hospital by making jokes and coping gradually with the diagnosis.

"My family got closer," recalls Betsy. "We had to work together. One of my parents would come to the hospital while the other stayed home. My two older brothers came and visited me at the hospital and helped keep my spirits up."

Even these happy times together were often interrupted by the sudden onset of sickness.

"It was really hard when I had to go in the hospital when I had a fever. We would have things planned, and I always seemed to end up in the hospital for holidays. I was in for Easter and Father's Day. I would be doing really good at home and then would have to come in. That really brought me down because I didn't want to be there."

Though times did get tough, Betsy had an enormous support system at Roswell Park.

"The people at Roswell are amazing. Everyone from admissions to the clinics helped out a lot," explains Betsy thankfully. "I always joked around with the doctors and nurses. I was never just sitting there alone."

She adds that "it was good for my parents because there were always other parents of the other kids on the floor. They were all there for each other. Also, Roswell made it so easily accessible for my parents to stay with me in a comfortable environment."

Betsy was able, most of the time, to have a private room to accommodate both her and a parent. The family was also able to prepare their own food in a common kitchen area.

"The hospital is just so homey. They have this huge playroom with tons of toys and a big TV."

Aside from the support at the hospital, several of Betsy's teachers came to her house to tutor her on the material she was missing.

"I mainly had to self-teach myself, though, and they were there to answer my questions," she says.

Many friends and neighbors helped by cooking dinner for the family in the early stages of her illness so her parents could spend time with her. Her friends and classmates at school also contributed many cards and pick-me-ups.

"My dad's friend gave me a Tickle Me Elmo for Christmas when I first got the diagnosis. They came and visited me on Christmas Day. I brought that along every time I went for a shot or a spinal tap."

In February of this year, she went through 12 days straight of radiation treatments.

Now she's in the maintenance phase of treatment, going every week for a chemotherapy shot and taking medication in the evening.

"I've adjusted to it all by now," says Betsy. "It has made me a more responsible and mature person because of the commitment that is necessary to the treatment."

In recognition of her upbeat attitude, Betsy tonight will be honored with the Bob Koop Courage Award, of the Western New York chapter of the Leukemia Association, at a reception at Salvatore's Italian Gardens.

Now well into her junior year of high school at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, she takes challenging classes, is involved in numerous activities, including National Honor Society, and has been elected class president. She has also resumed her dance classes and is dance captain of the St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute Swing Choir.

"When I got back (to school), I wanted to do as much as I could. I've learned to value everything about each day. Your blood. Your life. Even if something little happens, a lot can go wrong."

Facing each day can be a challenge with the realization that her body is still battling the disease. "It's kind of scary sometimes knowing that I've had leukemia and that it can come back," she said.

"I believe in God and in miracles. If you really pray hard, you will receive help. I know that there were families praying for me everywhere."

In dealing with times of uncertainty, emotional distress and physical exhaustion, Betsy looks for the positive outcomes of her efforts.

"Maybe it is all to be an example to other people who have cancer that you can get through it with a positive attitude.

"I believe there are no bad days, only good days and great days. Cherish all of the time you have."

Tiffany Lankes is a senior at Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart.

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