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Student Cancer Patient Strives to Make Grade : Takes Positive Stance in Fight With Leukemia

January 07, 1986|LIZ MULLEN | Times Staff Writer

Hendryck Mejia likes school a lot better this year than last, when his teachers didn't say anything when he missed class and gave him A grades that he didn't deserve, he said.

"That was the worst school year I ever had. They pitied me. They said, 'Oh, he's sick,' " said Hendryck, 15. But he admits that he did take advantage of the situation. "I thought I was someone special because I have leukemia."

It has been three years since Hendryck was first diagnosed as having acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He said he doesn't ask "Why me?" anymore and he doesn't want to be treated any differently than any other ninth-grade Buena Park High School student. "I do my work now. I get mad if they (teachers) treat me the way they did," he said.

Hendryck goes to school every day that he can, he said. He usually is out one week a month for chemotherapy and is often late for his first class because he must go to the hospital early in the morning for blood tests. Other than when he has chemotherapy, Hendryck feels fine because his cancer is in remission.

Normal Life While Well

"When they're well (in remission), they are completely well," said Dr. Jacob Katz, a pediatric oncologist at UCI Medical Center and Hendryck's doctor. "They can participate in sports, activities and act like any normal teen-ager."

"The results for treating children and teen-agers are far better than adults," Katz said. Besides their youth, he said, teen-agers often have a better attitude toward their illness, and "children and teen-agers tolerate a lot more chemotherapy than adults. The child and teen-ager have a lot of parental influence and they (the parents) want to have the treatment. Adults (with cancer) refuse to take the treatment."

And cancer can be curable. Leukemia is the most common form of cancer in teen-agers, Katz said, followed by brain tumors. The success rate for luekemia is about 50% to 60%, Katz said. A patient is considered cured after the cancer has not reappeared for three years, Katz said.

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments can cause severe nausea, vomiting and hair loss. Baldness usually "affects the girls more than the boys," Katz said. "We do advise they get a wig" before starting treatment, he said.

Positive Approach Needed

When treating cancer, "you need a positive approach by the patient," he said. "You need all the cooperation you can get and the way to do it is not to hide anything."

Hendryck said he likes Katz because "he never keeps anything back." Hendryck said his doctor will tell him exactly what his treatment will be like. He said Katz will tell him, "Tommorrow, we're going to open you up. It's gonna hurt. It's not gonna hurt. It's gonna be like this."

Hendryck said he wants to be an oncologist, like Katz, and already "knows a lot" about leukemia. He has prepared a history of his illness and the treatments he's had that he shows to doctors at the medical center's clinic. "Every time I go to the clinic, there are new doctors and they start asking questions," he said.

Hendryck has had chemotherapy and spinal taps, and the insides of his elbows are black and blue from more than 250 needles, most used to extract blood samples. Most of the treatments are painful, like spinal taps, he said. "I don't want to talk about spinal taps."

Often, Hendryck said, he becomes angry when he must submit to treatment, but ultimately "I do it, because I know it's for me to get better."

Two Relapses Suffered

The worst part of his illness has been the relapses, Hendryck said. He has had two: the first 15 months after he was diagnosed and the second 18 months after that. "The doctor said at the beginning you don't know if it's going to come back," he said.

But still, it is hard to prepare for, Hendryck said. "It's like flunking a grade."

Dr. Ellis Schwied, a psychiatrist who is completing his specialty in child psychology at UCI Medical Center, leads a weekly discussion group for teen-agers with cancer, which Hendryck attends. The teen-agers in the group "are normal kids in many, many ways," Schwied said. "They have to deal with the expectations that any teen-ager has to deal with. In addition they have cancer." The teen-age years can be difficult in and of themselves, a time of sexual awakening, growing independence and finding an identity, Schwied said. "They're doing their best to separate from their families and establish their independence," he said.

It is normal for teen-agers to test their parents by "pushing limits," Schwied said. "They will push and push until the limit makes itself clear." But in the cases of teen-agers with cancer, often "their limits have been extended," Schwied said.

Some Parents Too Lenient

Schwied said that parents often make the mistake of being too lenient with children because they have cancer. "They say, 'Why should I punish him, God has already punished him enough,' " he said.

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