Young cancer sufferers celebrate life at prom night

DENVER Thu Jun 10, 2010 9:58am EDT

1 of 15. Gaia Damerst (L) and Mallory Evans display their mediport pendants as they prepare for a prom sponsored by The Children's Hospital for cancer patients in Denver June 8, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

DENVER (Reuters Life!) - When Brandon and Lindsay McElhinney took to the dance floor at a prom at Denver's Westin Tabor Center this week, there was just one thing on their mind -- having a good time.

The newly-weds, dressed for a mascarade theme, were among about 50 teenagers and young adults suffering from cancer and other blood diseases attending the fourth annual Cancer Prom in Denver that gives young cancer sufferers the chance to enjoy a real prom.

Baldness. Wheelchairs. Skin problems. Nothing raises eyebrows in this crowd which understands what it is like to face death and to endure ravaging treatments with no certainty of a cure.

The girls wore strapless evening gowns, some revealing scars from where medical devices used to administer chemotherapy were once implanted, while their partners were in dress suits and tuxedos, some on crutches, some missing parts of limbs.

"It gives me a chance to be with other young people who have been through the same things I have been through with cancer. It is a chance for us to live or relive a prom that many cancer patients missed," Brandon McElhinney, 26, told Reuters.

"I missed all of my high school dances and proms because of issues related to cancer and the social effect it has on young people," added 23-year-old Lindsay.

Both Brandon and Lindsay are cancer survivors.

Lindsay was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at the age of 13 and Brandon was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) at the age of 13, suffering severe complications and setbacks along the way.

They met at a cancer camp organized by The Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at The Children's Hospital in Denver.

"(Having cancer) has changed my life for the better in that the people I have met and the experiences I've had, including my amazing wife whom is survivor herself," said Brandon.

"We have been married one year as of Sunday. It has given me a new perspective on life and an amazing drive for it."

The annual prom gives patients with cancer and blood disorders aged 13 and up the opportunity to enjoy a normal rite of teenage passage -- a prom.

PROM WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS

The founder of the event, Tommi McHugh, a child life specialist and teen program organizer at The Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at The Children's Hospital, said the youngsters enjoy the pre-prom preparation -- hair, nails and getting dressed up -- nearly as much as the actual prom.

"Many of these young people missed their high school proms because they were under the weather from chemo treatment, in the hospital recovering from surgery or simply not well enough to attend," McHugh told Reuters.

"This event provides them with the opportunity to "be a normal teenager." Other kids just don't get it sometimes."

For Mike Bamford, 15, it was his first prom. Mike has Cystic Fibrosis and was also diagnosed with ALL in September 2009 which put him in hospital for seven months fighting for his life. He was discharged a couple of weeks ago but returned for the prom.

"It's an opportunity to get together with other kids that have the same thing I have," Mike told Reuters as he danced from his wheelchair, his limbs rail thin having lost so much muscle while bedridden.

Mallory Evans, 15, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006 at age 11 and is now in remission after 30 months of chemotherapy, had been looking forward to dancing with her friends. She wore the mediport once used to administer chemotherapy on a necklace.

"What is important is that you are well enough to make it and have a great time! It is one night to celebrate and forget about our cancer and just be regular teenagers," said Mallory who was homebound all of sixth grade and bald for a year.

McHugh said every year the prom had a profound impact on some of the youngsters.

She cites the example of one girl who had refused to talk to anyone and isolated herself during her illness. However she agreed to come to the prom and started dancing, clearly feeling comfortable in the crowd so that when she got too hot she just pulled off her wig and carried on dancing.

Last year one teenager in the final stages of his disease came and he couldn't speak or walk but he danced all night from his wheelchair by moving one arm. Everyone danced with him and interacted with him. He died a week later.

"It was just unbelieveable," said McHugh. "Every year these kids are so inspiring in their ability and no questions are asked. There are no second glances. They can just celebrate feeling well enough to be here and feeling accepted."

McHugh said the biggest issue for teenagers suffering cancer was isolation then disassociation from their peers so they needed others who understood what they were going through.

"They look at losing their life, or may their leg, or their confidence, while their friends just carry on but for these guys it just changes everything," she said.

McHugh said it amazed her that despite the threat to their lives and the severe treatment, most youngsters battling these diseases say they would not change anything given a chance.

Take Brianna Simmons, 14, who was diagnosed with AML in February 2009. She attended the prom for her first time this year and was looking forward to meeting other teens with cancer.

"(My illness) has impacted me in so many ways you can't imagine, and I wouldn't change it for the world. It's made me a stronger person and a better one, I don't take things for granted anymore and I just love my life," she told Reuters.

(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)