After a year of cancer, life comes into focus

One year ago, Cassie Fraize had about as much of an idea of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life as most 16-year-olds. She would turn 17 in February, but she was not set on college. Her world included her two pigs, hunting with her dad, spending time with her three brothers and parents and taking hundreds of blurry photos of animals with an old Vivitar point and shoot digital camera.

Then, in April of last year, she got a fever that wouldn’t go away. Her mother, Laura, took Cassie to the emergency room and the ER doctor suggested a trip to the family doctor for some tests. Laura thought it was the flu. Who needs tests for that? So they put the appointment off.

But Cassie’s swollen lymph nodes kept growing and soon they began to dig into her wind pipe. So, Laura made an appointment for a CT scan. A CT scan is a series of X-rays taken at different angles which can create a whole picture of a body’s interior. Cassie’s doctor assumed that a scan of her head and neck would be enough, but then, just before the appointment, Cassie had an accident on her three wheeler, and her doctor ordered an entire upper body scan.

The scan revealed lymphoma, and not just in her lymph nodes, but inside her lungs, too. All at once her life had a clear purpose, and that was survival. It meant giving up a lot of what she loved. Weakened by chemotherapy, the girl who loved the outdoors found herself stuck indoors.

“Basically you had to stay in all day and you couldn’t do anything except watch television or play videogames or do homework,” Cassie said. “And I liked going outside and doing stuff.”

Meanwhile, Laura was thinking about the future, about Cassie’s recovery. For years, Laura had been donating money to the Kids Wish Network, a national charity that offers to fulfill the wishes of children with life threatening illnesses.

“I’d heard about the Kids Wish Network when my friend’s kid had cystic fibrosis,” Laura said. “Her husband was in contact with them and so I began donating.”

She never figured she’d be on the receiving end, but in April, when Cassie was diagnosed, she asked her daughter what she would wish for. Cassie wanted a new camera. She already had plans for after her recovery.
Throughout most of last year, Cassie made regular trips to St. Jude’s pediatric cancer hospital in Memphis. Cassie had never liked going to the doctor, but then during those hours she spent in St. Jude’s, something funny happened.

“The doctors there, they keep you laughing all the time and they keep explaining what they’re doing,” she said. “And no matter what, they remember your name. Sometimes they’ll call you just to ask how you’re doing.”

Her mother said that once, when Cassie was on the mend, a doctor called their house between regularly scheduled visits. “He said, ‘I just had to call because I haven’t seen Cassie in a couple of days,’” Laura said. “It was the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.”

Cassie, who is home schooled, did not miss any of her classes, and she said her cancer treatment was an education of its own.

“I feel like I’ve learned more stuff over the past year, basically,” she said. “You learn stuff at St. Jude’s.”

By September her cancer was in remission. Her trips to St. Jude’s grew less frequent and she began to get healthier, stronger. She began to go outside again, and she managed to get a full season of hunting in last year, although even now she still avoids a crowd at Walmart.

Then, the week of Christmas, she got a box from Kids Wish Network. Inside she found games, a hat, a scarf and a brand new Olympus E-PL3, a 12 megapixel digital camera known for its fast autofocus and shutter speed and for its interchangeable lenses.

“My old camera didn’t take the same pictures that you’d see,” Cassie said. “The Olympus gives you a clear picture and with the zoon lens, you can get closer than with the Vivitar.”

In the month she’s had the new camera, she’s already been out along the levee taking photos of cows, pigs and the Mississippi outdoors. She hasn’t had a chance to take her new camera to her parent’s hunting camp, but she’d like to.

And, weeks away from her 18th birthday, as she wraps up high school, she’s giving college a thought.
“If I do go to college, I’d like to become a child life specialist at St. Jude’s,” Cassie said. “They work with the patients and bring toys and crafts to the kids.”

Laura said that many of the doctors, nurses, child life specialists and even janitors at the hospital had first come as children.

“So many of them had been patients there, but then they’d come back,” Laura said. “It’s just that great.”

The Clarksdale Press Register
Clarksdale, Mississippi

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Kids Wish Network is a charitable organization dedicated to infusing hope, creating happy memories, and improving the quality of life for children having experienced life-altering situations. Kids Wish Network assists children and their families through several key programs.