Fancy gowns. Tuxedos. Boutonnières. Limousinesand dancing. Prom is a rite of passage for most American teenagers, but for some young people battling cancer, prom is just a dream — a fading mirage in the distance. Toxic chemotherapy treatments, medical complications and fatal conditions often prevent children with cancer from making it to prom.
Prom to Remember is a non-profit organization that hosts a grand, red-carpet dance at the Fort Lauderdale Ritz-Carlton for local children and teenagers who are battling or have survived cancer. Pompano Beach resident Alexandra Orzech has been attending Prom to Remember every year since she was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma five years ago. This is her story.
By Danielle Charbonneau
The summer before fourth grade Alex had what she thought was a stubborn common cold. After some blood work and a visit to her pediatrician, Alex was told she had Bronchitis. When school started and the medication still hadn’t worked, Alex’s parents took her to an ear, nose and throat specialist who prescribed a precautionary ultrasound to rule out further possibilities. Alex’s dad Richard took her for the ultrasound on a sunny Saturday morning. On Monday, he received a dreadful call: the ultrasound had turned up something troubling. He was instructed to bring Alex to the emergency room immediately. He pulled Alex out of class that afternoon and took her to Broward North not knowing their lives were about to inexplicably change.
“There, the bad news became worse news,” he said.
“That night they did blood work and scans,” said Alex. “By the next morning they diagnosed me with lymphoblastic lymphoma.”
The nurse who delivered the news happened to be an old family friend.
“When she came into the room we could see tears in her eyes,” Richard said. “We knew something bad was happening. Then we got the word. They defined it as a mass and admitted her.”
“I thought I’d be back to normal in a couple of days, that I was just going to go on some antibiotics and would go back to school. I’d go see all my friends and everything would go back to normal, but that didn’t happen at all,” Alex said.
The following morning an oncologist explained Alex’s diagnosis and course of treatment — three years of toxic chemotherapy and a series of operations.
“It was terrible — almost surreal. You can’t even believe its happening,” said Richard. “I would explain it almost as going into a state of shock. Your body just takes over and you just do what the doctors recommend and take it from there, not knowing, at that time, what a journey is ahead of you.”
Luckily, Alex’s type of cancer was curable. For her age range, the oncologist explained, there was about a 94 percent survival rate. The course of treatment, however, was treacherous. Complications caused by operations and infections are common.
“If it wasn’t the cancer that would get you, then maybe an infection would. You’re always afraid that something is going to happen. Is the cancer going to come back? Will there be infection?” Richard said. “The drugs and chemo completely wiped out Alex’s system.”
As a result, Alex had to stay primarily at the hospital, sometimes for months at a time. Broward North’s eighth floor became Alex’s new home.
“I didn’t have the immune system to stay at home,” Alex said. “If I got a fever or anything I’d have 30 minutes to get to the ER before it turned fatal. There were times when I was getting chemo for days at a time, or operations back-to-back.”
“Through the entire process you see your child at times laying there, 80 pounds, completely grey and there’s nothing you can do,” said Richard. “As a parent, we’re here to protect our children. But you’re powerless.”
Richard said he got most of his strength from Alex.
“There were times when I would be upset and kind of loose it. She would look a me and say. ‘Dad, it’s going to be ok. Don’t cry.’ Or ‘It’s not your fault dad.’ I would kind of get mad at myself for showing weakness in front of my child. But you can’t help it sometimes. Your emotions just take over. It’s a real emotional roller coaster.”
Forming Bonds & Finding Fun
While Richard got his strength from Alex, she got hers from the bonds she formed with some of the nurses and other patients. One nurse in particular, Melissa, had a major impact on Alex. Both Richard and Alex call her an “angel.”
“When I first met Melissa she brought me to the side and told me she knew what I was going through,” said Alex. Melissa herself is a childhood cancer survivor.
“She told me her story. She really helped me through a lot. She would lie in bed with me and hold me and comfort me and tell me how to get through certain situations.” Alex said. “She taught me to stay positive and keep my sense of humor…to always keep fighting no matter what the situation is, and to always care for people.”
Alex did keep her positive and humorous spirit. She even started making comical tee-shirts to wear while undergoing treatment — funny phrases like, “I’m having a no hair day” and “Chemo made me do it.”
“I think Melissa has a lot to do with Alex’s full recovery,” said Richard. “Melissa has been an inspiration. She told us her story and she gave us hope.”
Throughout Alex’s three years of treatment, she and her family also had the opportunity to meet other family’s like theirs struggling with childhood cancer.
“You create bonds with families and you become a part of this fraternity that you really don’t want to be a part of, but you’re apart of it,” said Richard. “I think initially — with the pain of it all and the shock — you almost resist being a part of this group, but there’s no denying it. My advice to other parents or families would be to take advantage of it… You are not alone.”
Now in remission, five years after her diagnosis and two since her last treatment, Alex has maintained friendships with the kids she met through treatment.
“I made a lot of friends,” Alex said. “Unfortunately a lot of them did not make it, but the ones that have… our bonds are inseparable…We saw each other cry and laugh, and we saw each other at our weakest points.”
Prom to Remember
This year, Alex will get to reunite with some of those friends at Prom to Remember, a prom-style gala at the Ritz Carlton designed for kids who may never make it to their own high school prom. This will be Alex’s sixth time attending Prom to Remember. Approximately 200 kids are expected to attend from area hospitals.
“We get ready at my hospital around two or three o’clock and then we hop on either a limo or party bus,” Alex said. “From there we drive to the Ritz Carlton all together. We hop off our vehicle and we head up to the fourth floor. There are people waiting and greeting us and we check in, walk down a red carpet. There’s cameras, there’s people clapping for us. We sit in a waiting area where there’s food and entertainment and wait for the ballroom to open up.”
In the ballroom a DJ plays music and the kids get the chance to be kids again. Alex remembers well her first time at Prom to Remember.
“It was the first time I didn’t have any pain and was distracted from everything that was going on,” she said. “The event itself has gotten better every year, but the groups are still there. The volunteers are still there. It’s really nice reuniting with everyone and enjoying ourselves.”
“It is literally a red carpet greeting,” said Richard. “The press is there. There’s celebrities waiting for them. When that limousine bus pulls up it’s amazing — not just seeing my own daughter come off, but to see these other children who have been through so much.”
This year is Alex’s first year back at a traditional, brick-and-mortar high school since she left in the fourth grade. She is attending Atlantic Technical High School with aspirations of joining the military — either army or navy. She said battling cancer has made her who she is today.
“I am ten times stronger and now I know what I want to do with my life,” she said.”Now I know all I want to do is help people. I am more caring and thankful for everything that I have…If I ever have to, unfortunately, die as a young person, I would want to do it serving my country.”
Richard also acknowledges how much cancer has strengthened Alex.
“Even before Alex was diagnosed, even as a kid, she always had an old soul way about her,” he said. “I think the experience of cancer has just accelerated that.”
The 2018 Prom to Remember
The Fort Lauderdale 2018 Prom to Remember will be held on May 11 from 7 to 11pm at the Ritz-Carlton (1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.) The experience is provided at no expense to the children or their families. Limousine transportation, formal attire, red carpet entrance, and all activities are provided with the help of donations. If you would like to donate, please visit apromtoremember.org.
Other local childhood cancer organizations to support:
Jessica June Children’s Cancer Foundation (JJCCF)
JJCCF is a children’s cancer charity, fund and foundation based in South Florida with children assisted in Miami, Broward County (including Ft. Lauderdale through Weston) and Palm Beach County (including West Palm Beach through Wellington). JJCCF is committed to providing emergency financial relief to help families pay for everyday necessities such as medical, utility, rent, mortgage, car and groceries. This direct and tangible assistance for access to basic necessities is vital. Additionally, the Foundation advocates for and raises awareness of childhood cancer. Visit jjccf.org for more information.
Deliver the Dream
Deliver the Dream (located in Fort Lauderdale) provides free structured, therapeutic, fun activities for families experiencing a serious illness or crisis. The organization does this through a three-day, two-night retreat geared toward a specific illness/crisis such as autism, death of a loved one or cancer. Deliver the Dream is always looking for retreat volunteers who stay on site (food and lodging provided) for an entire three-day, two-night extended weekend retreat. Volunteers will be paired up with one family and serve as their family pal. They will tend to their needs, get to know them, sit with them at all meals and make sure they are having a great time. Volunteers might also assist with leading program activities such as beading, canoeing, karaoke, or teen movie night. Deliver the Dream was founded by Pat Moran, past chairman of JM Family Enterprises, Inc. and one of South Florida’s top business women. To learn more about becoming a retreat volunteer, or to make a donation, visit: deliverthedream.org.
Ronald McDonald House Charities of South Florida
When a child is sick, a family wants the best care possible – even if it is hundreds or thousands of miles away. The Ronald McDonald House allows families to access specialized medical treatment by providing a place to stay at little or sometimes no cost. The Ronald McDonald House Charities of South Florida was started In 1982 when a group of caring individuals, local McDonald’s owners, prominent doctors, a few corporations and volunteers raised the funds to open the first House in Miami. In 2004, the second House in South Florida opened in Fort Lauderdale next to Broward General Medical Center. This facility is able to accommodate up to 20 families. There are many ways to support. Find out more at rmhcsouthflorida.org.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]
Childhood Cancer Statistics
Each year, the parents of approximately 15,700 kids will hear the words “your child has cancer.” Across all ages, ethnic groups and socio-economics, cancer remains the number one cause of death by disease in children. Despite major advances – from an overall survival rate of 10 percent 50 years ago, to roughly 88 percent today — many rare cancers have low survival rates. Furthermore, the number of diagnosed cases annually has not declined in nearly 20 years. Some statistics:
• Every day, 43 children are diagnosed with cancer.
• 12 percent of children diagnosed with cancer do not survive.
• Children’s cancer affects all ethnic, gender and socio-economic groups.
• The average age of children diagnosed is six.
• More than 40,000 children undergo treatment for cancer each year.
• 60 percent of children who survive cancer suffer late-effects, such as infertility, heart failure and secondary cancers.
• There are approximately 375,000 adult survivors of children’s cancer in the United States. That equates to 1 in 530 adults ages 20-39.