Nobody at Centennial Middle School had ever had cancer.
So when Colleen Wilke was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, staff at the PCH Children's Cancer Center knew she could use some help making the transition back into school. A counselor from the Cancer Center talked to Colleen's classmates so they could understand what she was going through.
"How would it be for you if you had to come to school tomorrow without any hair?' the counselor asked, explaining that the chemotherapy used to treat Colleen's cancer would probably cause her hair to fall out. Then she asked how the students would react if they heard someone teasing her.
"I'll sock 'em one!" a boy named Josh offered, although Colleen has never had to collect on his noble offer.
"Nobody really makes fun of me," she said. Overall, her classmates and teachers have been very supportive. Kids often ask her how she's doing, and teachers send books to her house when she has to miss school.
The ordeal started in mid October, when Colleen began complaining to her mother about swelling on the right side of her neck. Julie Wilke wasn't overly concerned, since her daughter had experienced similar swelling with sinus infections. Over-the-counter medication helped temporarily, but a few weeks later the swelling returned - and this time it was severe. Colleen had also lost both her energy and her appetite.
A family doctor referred them to Phoenix Children's Hospital, were a physician from the Children's Cancer Center candidly shared her suspicion with the Wilkes: she was 98 percent certain that Colleen had Hodgkin's Disease, a cancerous disorder marked by steady enlargement of the lymph glands.The doctor's suspicion was confirmed following exploratory surgery that evening.
The first days were the hardest, as the family adjusted to the shock and faced the uncertainty of the coming months. But Colleen has responded very well to chemotherapy treatment, and doctors have given her a good prognosis for full recovery. In her first week of treatment, the lymph gland that had enlarged to 6 x 8 centimeters decreased to 1 x 2 centimeters. Doctors realized her cancer was less severe than they had originally thought, and the chemotherapy that was expected to continue for one to 1 1/2 years was cut back to six months.
"It's just been positive the whole way," said Julie.
Colleen has made a conscious effort to focus on the positive aspects of her treatment. Instead of dreading her chemotherapy sessions, she looks forward to the two weeks she has off every month. And although she cried when she learned that she would lose her hair, she adjusted easily to the idea of wearing a wig.
"It's sort of like a pair of glasses," she said. "After a while, you don't even notice they're there." Occasionally, she can even see some humor enter into the picture. She had to give herself shots at home during one period of her treatment, and she used an ice pack to numb her leg before each injection. One night she decided she had probably left the ice pack on a little too long, when she applied alcohol to the injection area and saw flakes of ice come off her leg.
"I froze my leg," she said. "That was pretty funny."
Colleen has stayed active in school, where she plays the violin in the orchestra and serves on the Student Council. She has had to miss a fair amount of school, since chemotherapy typically sends her to bed for two days at a time, but she has managed to keep her grades at a 4.0 average. Now she is looking forward to summer, when chemotherapy will be behind her. A positive outlook has helped the six months of treatment pass quickly, she said.
"It's a good attitude that gets you through it," she said. "You live each day to the fullest. That's what I try to do."