JEFFERSON-Most high school students spend their days longing to make their mark and stand out from the crowd.
But Kiersten Sharpe, a 17-year old Ashe County High School junior, is anything but your average student. She says she’d trade the last year of her roller coaster journey for a chance to be just another kid in school again.
“To be normal, to feel normal again – that’s all I want,” Sharpe said. “That’d be pretty nice right now.”
Sharpe, who celebrates her 17th birthday on Nov. 10, is battling a relatively rare form of cancer, ependymoma, that has attacked the cells in or near her spinal column.
So far she’s had two tumors removed from her cervical and lumbar spine and suffered through a grueling six week course of radiation therapy in Philadelphia.
But she’s recently returned to her Jefferson home with her family and said she’s looking forward to facing the future.
“I miss cheerleading and my friends more than anything else,” Sharpe said. “And I’d like to get back out there one day.”
‘She just collapsed’
Little more than a year ago, Stephanie Ramsey, Sharpe’s mother, said her daughter was a bubbly social butterfly who was just looking forward to starting her sophomore year at the high school.
“She was just the sweetest, most sensitive child,” Ramsey said. “She’d never been sick, and I mean never really sick at all. She was just this fun loving girl.”
Sharpe had often complained to her mother about back pain, but Ramsey said doctors had brushed off the discomfort as the aches and pains and pulled muscles typical of high school athletes.
But one night in August 2014, Ramsey said her daughter walked into her parents’ room shortly after 1:30 a.m. and started yelling before passing out.
“She just collapsed, so we rushed her to the Emergency Room,” Ramsey said.
Medical staff thought the 15-year old Sharpe had a panic attack, but Ramsey’s mother’s intuition – and the fact that Sharpe collapsed two other times that same week – forced her to search harder for answers. Ramsey said she wasn’t ready for the results of a spinal MRI scan she and her husband Eric were told about just days later.
“Doctors said they found a mass in Kiersten’s spine and that she needed to be seen right away,” Ramsey said. “I thought, no, my baby girl has cancer and I just sat there and cried.”
Within days, the pretty blonde-haired cheerleader was being prepped for surgery to remove the malignant tumor. Sharpe said the speed at which everything happened probably worked to her benefit.
“We didn’t have time to worry or wonder ‘what if,” Sharpe said. “So I honestly wasn’t very scared going into it.”
The operation was successful and medical specialists assured Sharpe and her family that cancers of her type rarely return. And for six months that appeared to be the case for Sharpe, Ramsey said.
“Then in April she was singing in the youth choir and she got up in the middle of singing,” Ramsey said. “I knew something was wrong and she just sort of fell. So I just started running.”
Further scans found a lesion inside Sharpe’s lumbar spine, lower than the first surgery’s target area.
Doctors performed another successful surgery in July 2015, Ramsey said, but Sharpe was due for an aggressive schedule of proton radiation therapy at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The therapy allowed doctors to carefully target Sharpe’s cancer with concentrated bursts of radiation, but the treatments took their toll on Sharpe. Because of the therapy’s impacts on her nerves, the specialized mask Sharpe wore smelled – only to her – like trash.
“It was awful, and the worst part was that you knew each time it was going to smell like that,” Sharpe said.
The treatments took Sharpe from her friends and family and left her feeling weak. She also started to lose her long blonde hair for the first time.
Back at home
Sharpe said she was glad to get back home after the end of her treatments early last month.
She was even able to return, briefly, to Ashe County High School in recent weeks. A bout of walking pneumonia forced a visit to doctors yet again, however.
Right now, the family is awaiting an early December scan at Duke University Medical Center to determine Sharpe’s next steps.
Despite her illness, Sharpe said she’s the same girl she’s always been. She misses the constant interaction with her friends and said she’d give anything to eventually return to competitive cheerleading.
Her battle has thrown a kink in her studies – Sharpe likely won’t graduate high school on time with her classmates – but Ramsey said a combination of online classes and home study coursework puts Sharpe in good position to one day attend college.
Sharpe said she’s always thought of a career in nursing, and Ramsey is encouraging her to look at becoming a child life specialist like those Sharpe worked with in Philadelphia. The hospital’s team of specialists help children like Sharpe, and their families, deal with their illness and treatment.
“I’m just going with the flow right now, but I’m finally starting to feel better,” Sharpe said.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.