Throughout the month of April 2017 Aleigha had experienced some fatigue, bruising and headaches, then she developed a knot on the back of her neck. A blood draw revealed an extraordinarily high white blood cell count. Because Aleigha’s mother, who is a nurse, knew what that could mean, she immediately took her daughter to the hospital. The next day, doctors determined Aleigha had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia B-cell, a common childhood cancer that is very aggressive. Her treatment started the very next day with intense chemotherapy.
What followed was a three-year regimen of bone marrow aspirations, port placement, cholecystectomy, pancreatitis, long-term chemotherapy, spinal taps, needle sticks, venipuncture, sedation, hydration and nausea control. There were countless trips to the emergency room and admissions to the hospital. Although Aleigha was considered to be in remission 30 days after her diagnosis, doctors continued her treatments as one cancer cell left behind could multiply, riddling her body with cancer again.
“From my diagnosis and through my sophomore year I was completely out of school,” Aleigha said. “I was so sick, I could barely lift my head off the pillow, so I just couldn’t do school work. Then my junior year, I got a little better and tried to come back, but I kept getting sick because my immune system was so low.”
But Aleigha fought her way back and was healthy enough to return to school her senior year.
“I just needed a little normalcy in my life and I wanted to be a normal teenager again and finish out my senior year,” Aleigha said. “The first few months have been good, but it’s been different coming back.”
Aleigha said it feels a little like she’s a new kid at school, so she’s slowly navigating the social circles – reestablishing old friendships and cultivating new friends. It’s challenging, she said, because she’s a completely different person now than she was when she was last in school as a freshman.
“I was always the type that cared about the little things like looking good all the time,” Aleigha said. “But cancer put things into perspective for me. It gave me a new outlook on life. I appreciate every little thing, and I’m just so happy to be healthy again.”
Although she won’t be declared cancer-free until five years after diagnosis, Aleigha is in remission and considers herself cured. And like a typical high school senior, she is now focusing on her future. She had always been drawn to nursing, but now Aleigha wants to specialize in oncology nursing to help young people going through what she experienced, maybe even one day working at the hospital where she was treated.
“I think that’s my calling,” Aleigha said.
She is well on her way to fulfilling that calling. At HCHS, Aleigha is pursuing the nursing career pathway and has been accepted to UK, UofL and Georgetown. She’s leaning toward starting at Georgetown for her general education classes, then transferring to UK for the nursing program there.
“I’m looking forward to picking out a college and getting ready for that, and I’m just ready to graduate,” Aleigha said. “I’m just so ready for a new chapter. I’m nervous, but I feel like I’ll be successful.”
Having successfully beaten cancer and earned the title of survivor, Aleigha said she will always be willing to share her story as she did in her winning essay.
“It is a badge of honor. I tell people I’m a survivor,” Aleigha said, although she’s more than that, too. “Cancer doesn’t define me, but it is a very big part of my life. If I could go back to how things were before I was diagnosed, I would go through it again because I’m a better person now.”
In her essay, Aleigha said the experience drew her closer to the Lord and her family and helped her truly learn who she was as a person. She learned how strong she could be and what was really important in life.
“I’ve always said just don’t sweat the small stuff, because eventually those little things will be the big things that matter in life,” Aleigha said, which she also expressed in her essay. “I have learned not to take life for granted, not to stress about the little things because tomorrow is not promised, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that everything is temporary. I most importantly learned and found that there is life after cancer.”