Alissa VanWanzeele has her focus fixed squarely on the future these days, eager to re-embrace a life filled with possibilities and to part with a recent past of pain and uncertainty.
The St. Petersburg 13-year-old is looking forward to attending her second All Children’s Hospital Homecoming Dance on Oct. 11. But an even bigger date looms in November, when Alissa will undergo her final round of chemotherapy for treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which turned her world upside down the week before she was to start middle school in 2012.
Today, Alissa is one of the countless stories of hope and courage during September’s Cancer Awareness Month and another example of the state-of-the-art care and treatment offered by the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Cancer Institute. Her parents, Lemi and David, feel immense pride over the way she has dealt with the discomfort and disruption in her life, and remain grateful to All Children’s and friends from church and school who have been there each step of the way since Aug. 8, 2012.
That’s when everything changed for Alissa. She had been an active, healthy 11-year-old who loved to read and excelled in her classes at St. Paul’s Catholic School in St. Petersburg.
“The weekend before she was diagnosed, she’d got gotten sick with vomiting, and we were thinking it was just some kind of a virus,” says Lemi. “But then her face started swelling up, which is something we’d never seen before.”
The parents of four children – including Alissa’s older sister, Shaina, and two young brothers, Dale and Isaiah – were perplexed and concerned. “I work in health care as a physical therapist, so I’m around illnesses, but this worried me, because Alissa has allergies and mild asthma, and I didn’t want this to cause her problems with breathing,” Lemi recalls.
A trip to the doctor’s office followed, and the diagnosis was a virus. They were briefly relieved. But the swelling remained and Alissa seemed sicker than ever. “As her mom, something didn’t add up to me, so we decided to take her to the Emergency Center at All Children’s,” Lemi recounts.
She and David, on break as a Pinellas County public school teacher at the time, brought their daughter in on a Tuesday evening. Tests were performed, and a doctor delivered the jolting news: Alissa had leukemia and needed to be admitted to the intensive care unit right away. “Her white blood cell numbers were through the roof – they were amazed she hadn’t had a stroke,” Lemi says.
The shock was softened somewhat when the All Children’s hematology-oncology team told them the type of leukemia their daughter had was one of the most common, with a high cure rate. “We were told if you’re going to get leukemia, this is the best type,” Lemi remembers. “It still hit us hard that night. Alissa didn’t even look that sick, but here we were being transported to the ICU. The good news is we caught it just in time, because her white blood cell count was so high – she was about to have real problems otherwise.”
The family’s strong religious faith helped them weather the storm ahead and not dwell on fear or anxiety. The gravity of the ordeal truly sunk in for Alissa when she became ill from the chemotherapy, and her long black hair fell out. She dealt with that by developing a signature look with an array of colorful scarves. The treatment plan also included radiation, but Alissa persevered. “The first eight months were the roughest,” says her mom. “She was in and out of the hospital.”
Lemi found her own way to handle the situation with the help of Shaina, creating and updating a Facebook page (Prayers and Wishes for Alissa). That served as a helpful and therapeutic way to keep family and friends up to date.
Alissa’s treatment proceeded with good results throughout the coming months, and she kept up with her sixth-grade curriculum through online classes and tutoring from her father. He left his teaching job to devote all his energy to helping his daughter keep up academically, driving her to appointments and help run the family business.
She returned to school at St. Paul’s by December, and has steadily gotten better thanks to her monthly treatments. In the fall of 2013, one of her highlights was attending the inaugural ACH Homecoming Dance, bringing along several friends to share in the memorable evening.
Now, Alissa is already counting the days to the next Homecoming Dance, having picked out a special purple dress from outfits donated to ACH for its Dress Shop event.
“I’m really excited,” she says. “It’s going to be so fun bringing all my friends and taking pictures.”
It wasn’t hard for Lemi to tell how much the event means to her daughter: “When she saw the flier for the event coming up, she would not stop bugging me, ‘Mom, mom, we have to RSVP!’ I think the event is just so wonderful. I saw so many smiles last year – and again when they were picking out dresses.”
Alissa, like her parents, is grateful for all the kindness showered up her during the past two years. “Everyone around me is always supporting me,” she says. “My school was really flexible when I came back, helping me with all my work. And all the doctors and nurses and everybody at All Children’s have taken great care of me. I’m really excited that I’ll be done with my chemo in November, too.”
Adds Lemi: “Everybody has been so great. We’ve had so much support from St. Paul’s – not just the staff and teachers but the families. For months, they would bring us food. Our church at St. Joseph’s is another amazing community that helped us. And we can’t say enough about All Children’s and everything they’ve done for Alissa and our family.”
One more key date awaits Alissa, stemming from a promise her parents made her to mark the end of chemotherapy as a way of boosting her spirits. “I get to pick out a puppy,” she says. But Alissa has already found a way to boost spirits herself.
“There’s a little girl I know who was just diagnosed with the same kind of cancer, and her dad came to talk to me and he said that I inspired them,” she says. “That makes me feel really good.”