acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
My name is Rachel. My tribal affiliation is full-blood Chickasaw/Creek/Seminole. I am 19 years old and will be entering my second year at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. I attended Little Axe Schools from Kindergarten to my senior year of high school. Little Axe is a rural community school outside of Norman, Oklahoma. My parents are both full-blood Natives, and I have an older brother (25) and a younger brother (16). My older brother, Caleb, is a state trooper for the State of Oklahoma. My younger brother, Andrew, will be starting the 10th grade at Little Axe High School. Little Axe is a small community that was established by one of the Absentee Shawnee tribal elders. The tribal health facility, casino, Head Start program, and tribal convenience store are located in Little Axe.
On January 12, 2016, my parents and I met with the physician team at Children’s Hospital to discuss the results of my recent bone marrow biopsy. We were given the devastating news, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)! At the age of 12 years old, I had a very limited understanding of leukemia, all I could really understand was I had just been told I HAD CANCER!
My treatment continued for 2½ years, and on October 5, 2018, I was able to have a bell-ringing celebration at Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City. The celebration signified my completion of treatment, and I would only be doing follow-up care and periodic checkups. I was so proud of myself for having endured all of the treatment.
Everything was going great, and all of my checkups were normal until my nine-month checkup. My pediatric oncologist began to see some unusual results in my blood level numbers. It turns out, on July 12, 2019, another word was added to my life journey ― relapsed! The leukemia had returned! I remember being so shocked, devastated, and heartbroken. I did not know what the future held, but I knew God was going to get me through this fight again. My pediatric oncologist team determined the best approach would be a bone marrow transplant. In preparation for the transplant, I endured several months of chemotherapy, bone marrow aspirations, total body irradiation, and complete isolation in the Children’s Hospital Stem Cell Unit. Finally, on December 6, 2019, I received my older brother’s bone marrow. In December 2023, I will be celebrating four years of a successful bone marrow transplant.
One of the “benefits” of facing pediatric cancer is it gives you a new perspective on life. After going through treatment, I have been told by many that I have an extraordinary maturity level compared to other students. I can attribute this to realizing how much of a blessing it is to do ordinary things, i.e., going to college. Due to cancer, I missed almost two years of high school, therefore, I now have an appreciation for school and academics. Many, including myself, who have faced a life-threatening illness say it changes you, and things that seemed important aren’t important now, and things that weren’t important are now very important.
I recently completed my first year at the University of Oklahoma, and I earned a 3.86 GPA. I did not miss one college class session as I see the importance of doing everything possible to obtain my degree. I sit in the front row, and I am not afraid to ask questions during and after class if I do not understand something. Free tutoring sessions are offered by the university, and I attend many of these sessions as needed.
Luke 12:48 says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I believe I have been given a second chance at life, and I have set my goals accordingly. My plans are to finish college and then enter medical school to become a pediatric physician assistant so that I can help others as I have been given help in my time of need. I am very proud of my study habits and my dedication to doing what is needed to accomplish my goals. I have found that I am a role model to many Native youth, and one of my goals is to be a positive role model for many more. As a result of my life story, I have gained an appreciation for life, and that is shown by my maturity in handling any situation.
While going through my cancer treatment, I have been honored to share my life story at several locations, including a Native American Cancer Conference in Niagara Falls, New York, and also at a conference on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. I have been featured on several television programs, and my family and I were asked to share our story in a documentary that is now used for a television commercial showing the strength of Native American youth. I am also a traditional cloth dancer, and I just completed my reign as the 2022-2023 Miss Indian Oklahoma City.
After going through seven years of cancer treatment, I know any goals I have set for myself may not be easy, but I believe with hard work, perseverance, and dedication, they are achievable.
As a part of my education process, in July 2023, I will be shadowing some of the same pediatric oncologists at Children’s Hospital of Oklahoma who provided much of my own cancer treatment.