Stories of Hope

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Childhood Cancer Survivor Finds Her Voice

Article date: May 22, 2012

Brianna Commerford

"Life is really fragile and short, so enjoy everything."

 

Brianna Commerford, 14, says she’s a “normal kid” again, back at school in Washington Township, NJ, hanging out with her friends, and participating in gymnastics and competitive cheerleading. But Brianna is also extraordinary. Since completing her treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, she has become a national spokesperson for childhood cancer, spoken before the US Congress about a bill to help develop new childhood cancer treatments, and helped raise more than $30,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Getting well

Brianna was 9 years old in January 2007 when she noticed a bump on her neck. She grew continually weaker and saw what she calls “tons of doctors” before she was finally diagnosed that October with stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma, a kind of cancer that starts in white blood cells. She immediately began chemotherapy at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, getting so sick at times that she spent many nights there. She was homeschooled for all of 4th grade, and had to stop playing soccer and horseback riding.

Brianna’s mother, Lorraine, admits that was a tough year. But she says Brianna remained positive and upbeat the whole time, never doubting that she would get better. Brianna says it was hard on the whole family, but it also brought them closer together. While Brianna’s mother stayed with her in the hospital, her father took care of Brianna’s two sisters. And everybody pitched in with household chores. Meanwhile, she says, friends and neighbors brought over meals and gave the sisters rides “everywhere.”

A way to help

One day while Brianna was in treatment, her older sister saw a poster in her high school for the town’s Relay For Life, the American Cancer Society’s signature event to celebrate cancer survivors and raise money for research and programs. She and her friends formed a team in honor of Brianna. More than 100 people joined, and together that year, they raised more than $10,000. To date, they’ve raised more than $30,000.

Relay For Life also helped people who cared about the Commerfords do something to help. Lorraine said people often asked how they could help, and Relay For Life gave them opportunities to donate time, food, equipment, and money.

Lorraine said, “Relay has been so great for our whole family, community, and friends. They felt like they were helping, like they were doing something good.”

A natural speaker

That Relay For Life also marked a turning point for Brianna. She was not only healthy enough to attend, she was also nominated by the American Cancer Society as a Hero of Hope. She eventually made about 15 speeches at high schools, colleges, and stores. But that night was her first public speech ever. Lorraine remembers, “We found out Bri was a great speaker. In front of thousands of people, she wasn’t shy or scared or nervous. This was not her before treatment. She was a quiet, shy kid. Talking to doctors and other adults changed her. It began her career of public speaking.”

Brianna went on to become the National Youth Ambassador for the Hyundai Hope on Wheels program, which donates money and raises awareness for childhood cancer research. She was named the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital Hope and Heroes Children’s Cancer Fund spokesperson and spoke on behalf of the October Woman Foundation, which expanded its focus from breast cancer support because of her. Most recently, she spoke on the floor of Congress in Washington, DC to promote a bill called the Creating Hope Act, which if passed will provide incentives to pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments for childhood cancer. Brianna had the honor of filing the bill herself.

She said, “It was very cool; way better than history class.”

Life lessons

Brianna says her cancer experience has taught her a lot. Some of it is practical knowledge that she shares with patients when she visits children’s hospitals. She says acupuncture and massage can ease the nausea that’s often a side effect of chemotherapy. She also says smelling orange and lemon peels helps, so carry some around. And she tells kids to bring lollipops and mints to all their treatments to avoid getting a weird taste in their mouth.

And while she’s still a “normal kid,” Brianna also learned some things that many people don’t understand until they’re way older than 14. She says, “Life is really fragile and short, so enjoy everything.”