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For ill teens, prom is a time to be normal

High school students with cancer are treated to an O.C. hospital event, complete with dancing, perhaps a date, and staff chaperons.

July 29, 2007|Chelsea J. Carter | Associated Press

ORANGE — The music wafted out of the ballroom and down the hallway as the prom-goers broke away for portraits against a printed backdrop of a medieval castle.

There had been the traditional couples pose -- the boys in suits, the girls in gowns. And then a group picture. Then came the picture of just the girls, and then the one of just the boys.

Then individual shots -- and finally it was Mark Acosta's turn. He struggled to stand unaided.

Before, with the others posing with him, it had been easy to hide the machine providing the fluids his body needed after a round of chemotherapy earlier in the day.

Now, as he rose alone, a nurse pushed it off to the side. Then she crouched behind him, out of the shot, grabbing his waist with both hands to help support him.

The look on his face revealed his mixed feelings, feelings he wouldn't talk about. Not now, anyway.

The 16-year-old had had different plans for this special night out. He had planned to bring a date. He had intended to dance. He would be walking unaided.

But cancer has a way of upsetting the best-laid plans.

Waiting off to the side, in a line, were dozens of other teens: A boy with a cane, another in a wheelchair; a girl wearing a wig, another attached to the same kind of machine that Mark had.

Most in this room had missed or been forced to alter teenage rituals: learning to drive, making plans for college -- and, of course, going to the prom, that dance that for so many marks the entrance into adulthood.

This is prom's promise to the young.

At this dance at the Children's Hospital of Orange County, there was another kind of promise -- for one night at least: the promise of normalcy.

*

Pink's "Get the Party Started" had already kicked off the dance by the time Mark had left his hospital room.

The nurses surprised him and another teen in the ward with wheelchairs decorated with red and gold ribbons and the red construction paper cut-out of the fleur de lis, a stylized version of the flower often associated with medieval French monarchy.

Mark had wanted to walk to the dance. He didn't like to use the wheelchair. But his battle with cancer had caused "foot drop," a weakness or paralysis.

"He struggles with the possibility of not walking," John de la Rocha says of his son. "He said, 'I can go through this. I can go through all of this, but I want to be able to walk.' "

He has had two years of treatment. He was 14, and his family was moving into their new home in Whittier the day the headaches he had been suffering became unbearable. Rather than hang pictures and unpack boxes, his parents took him to the hospital.

The diagnosis: medulla blastoma, an aggressive, malignant brain tumor.

Doctors told his parents, Anita and John de la Rocha, that the tumor had probably been growing in his brain since he was 12. After surgery and chemotherapy, Mark went into remission in March 2006.

Since then, he was learning to walk again. He was getting better. He was back in school, hanging out with friends.

And he was making plans to go to the hospital's prom, an annual event for high school-aged patients, many of whom are unable or unwilling because of their appearance to go to their own school prom.

But as the date approached, an MRI gave the family news they had prayed would never come: The cancer was back. It had recurred in his spine.

A week later, Mark underwent surgery to remove the tumor. And a week after that, days before the June 30 prom, he began his first round of what will be nine months of chemotherapy.

*

Away from the children's cancer unit, a conference room had been turned into a magical castle on the theme "A Medieval Knight." The hallway was decorated to resemble a drawbridge, and there were plants, a plastic grass carpet and a life-size plastic horse adorned with chain mail.

Greeting prom-goers were costumed actors from the "Medieval Times" dinner and tournament show in Buena Park.

Patients 15 and older were allowed to invite dates and friends. Parents could bring their son or daughter and take a look around, but then they had to leave. Why? Normalcy again. Parents don't go to the high school prom either.

"That's a hard one for some parents. I've had a couple get angry with me when I tell them they can't come," says Mitzi Bennett, a clinical social worker who organizes the prom. "You know they go through this together, and they share everything. So they often want to share this with their child too."

Mark is wheeled through the drawbridge entrance by his sister, Ashley, 18, and his cousins, Victoria Ferreiro, 14, and Matt Ferreiro, 17, who pushes the pole attached to the machine that administers fluids. His parents and sister Kristen, 11, watch, smiling.

It's as it should be -- proud parents looking on as their son, dressed in a new dark suit, goes off to a dance.

They have a night free too, a rare chance for dinner with friends.

*

Inside, more than 120 teens make their way back and forth between a ballroom and reception room where food is being served and prom portraits are being taken.

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