ActivePaper Archive M If ¦ ' ' 9 '" m ' ___&___ - Cleveland Jewish News, 6/9/2000

M If ¦ ' ' 9 '" m ' ___&___



Orange High School senior shares her odyssey with cancer.

ARLEMEFIME Staff Reporter She 's gorgeous, she's an honor

student, she's this year's

Orange High School prom queen. She's also m remission. Sitting at the kitchen table in her gracious Moreland Hills home, red-headed, petite Vanessa Bayer, 18, emotionally recalls the past four years. "It all began the last quarter of ninth grade in 1996," she says. "I thought I had a bad cold that wouldn't go away. I kept waking up at night with cold sweats and had a persistent headache with pain concentrating behind my left eye." After a few very anxious months and visits to specialists with her parents, Todd and Carolyn, Vanessa's condition was diagnosed. "I took a. bone-marrow test at the Ireland Cancer Center and the doctor told me and my parents to wait a few hours for the results," she says. "When we were called back to his office and there was a social worker and nurse in the room, we knew something terrible was wrong."

Vanessa's diagnosis was acute leukemia, a common and highly treatable childhood cancer affecting 2,500 children a year.

Inever felt abandoned because Ihad this disease."— Vanessa Bayer, 18

"When the doctor told us the news and the prescribed treatment of chemotherapy, radiation and steroids, the thought of dying never crossed my mind," says the determined teenager. "Instead, my first question, as a 14-year-old, was simply, "Am I going to lose my hair?'" Vanessa's treatment began that day as did her personal odyssey into self-discovery. "No matter how much pain I was in or even on the day I had my head shaved, I never allowed myself to wallow in self-pity," she says. "I literally plunged into the oceans of my soul and returned to the surface with an inner strength that I had never known existed."

Having done her homework, Vanessa knew the value of mental imagery as a strong coping and healing tool. "When I was being wheeled into the radiation room, I imagined I was going into a planetarium," she says. "As I quietly lay on my back and a screen molded into the shape of my face was screwed down, I took a deep breath and imagined I was seeing the night sky. That's how I made it through."

Fortunately, Vanessa's condition responded readily to treatment, and her mental toughness, coupled with the unwavering support of family, including her then 16-yearold brother, Jonah, and close friends, made the grueling, invasive treatment bearable.

Another source of great comfort was her mother, Carolyn, director of Family Place at the Jewish Community Center, who would sit on her hospital bed cradling Vanessa in her arms and softly singing lullabies to her. "The warming touch of my mother's familiar skin on my body plus her soothing voice did wonders for my psyche," says Vanessa as she runs her fingers through her soft, curly hair. "She helped me relax and gave me a comfort zone that was better than any painreducing medication.

Although Vanessa missed a lot of school in 10th grade when her treatment was the most aggressive, she consistently maintained over a ppoint grade average. Sporting an attractive , shoulder-length red wig, she also attended classes as often as she could. "When I was first diagnosed, a teacher called my home and said, 'Vanessa doesn't have to work too hard; we'll understand if her worK slips.' When I heard that I got wad. Just because I was sick didn't mean I couldn't continue to be a good student. This illness was riot going to beat me and affect my future chances for success." During the early months ot been treatment, Vanessa, who had a member of the Orange crosscountry team, says she felt her body change from that of a young, healthy teenager to (what seemed to her) that of an old, frail woman. "My friends would visit me w the hospital or at home and alter even a five-minute conversation j would be too weak to continue, she says. "But they understood m came back the next day for another In the fall, shortly after her grueling cancer treatment ended, Vanessa Bayer bought a bright red "victory dress" to wear to her senior prom.

brief visit. They never forgot about me; and I never felt abandoned because I had this disease."

Recalling her friend's illiiess, Orange High School senior Gwen Duchon says, "Whenever I visited Vanessa I always tried to be upbeat; I never let her see me cry My dad's a doctor and my mom's a nurse, so I know about cancer and I worried a lot about my best friend.

"But her inner strength and optimism transferred to me and I would start talking-about what was happening at school. If I could make Vanessa laugh even once, then it was a good day for both of us."

The two-and-a-half years of treatment finally came to an end the summer before her senior year. Vanessa's parents celebrated with an "End of Chemo Party" for her family and friends. And that fall, even though it was months away, Vanessa and her mother went shop- , ping for a prom dress. "We saw a bright red dress that fit perfectly and seemed so symbolic of what we went through," says Vanessa. "I called it my victory dress - and it was." Vanessa wore that dress when she was crowned prom queen by the junior and senior class the following May. Her life-defining illness has already had an impact on the way Vanessa looks to her future. She recently completed her senior project volunteering at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital. "Seeing gravely ill children made me realize how lucky I was during my illness to have so many support systems in place," says Vanessa, who is thinking of pursuing a medical career. "I met kids who told me they would rather be in the hospital than at home, because the nurses and social workers give them attention and care. Some of them rarely get visitors and don't have any personal advocates for their treatment." The graduating senior looks forward to a summer as a counselor at Firebird Camp in Northeast Ohio, before she heads off to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. ' "What this illness has taught me is compassion for anyone with an illness, at any age," she says. "I'm also grateful to be alive. It is such a joy to feel my body growing stronger each day"