Teen fights for support after battle with cancer

For two years, Megan O'Donnell increasingly felt drained of energy, to the point where she began falling asleep during class at high school.

O'Donnell, 17, blamed her tiredness on studying and after-school activities for the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts, which she began attending last fall.

But when O'Donnell began shaking uncontrollably, having night sweats and developing high fevers, she and her family decided she needed to see a doctor.BLOG: MEGAN'S WAY17-year-old Bethlehem native Megan O'Donnell was diagnosed on Oct. 28, 2004, with Stage 4B Hodgkin's Lymphoma. As shocking as her diagnosis was, Megan was surprised to learn that support groups for teens with cancer are few and far between. This blog is Megan's way to reach out to other teens like her.

MEGAN'S WAY: http://www.mcall.com/megan
On Oct. 28, O'Donnell learned she had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer that affects lymph tissue found in the body's lymph nodes, spleen, liver and bone marrow.

''I couldn't hear the doctor or what anyone else was telling me,'' said O'Donnell, who lives in Bethlehem. ''One day you're a regular teenager, the next you're facing death.''

O'Donnell braved the next trying months with her family and friends, but she soon learned that while cancer support groups exist in the Lehigh Valley for children and adults, teenagers have few places to turn to talk with peers.

''People tell them that they know what they're going through, but they don't,'' said Marnell Schuler, executive director of Allentown's Camelot House, which facilitates activities for children who are sick. ''There is definitely a need for cancer support groups for teens here.''

O'Donnell said going through chemotherapy and losing her hair were traumatic events during which she would have appreciated being able to talk with a peer going through the same ordeal.

Now in remission, O'Donnell hopes to begin a dialogue with other teens with cancer through a form of communication young people can relate to — an online blog. Starting today, O'Donnell's journal entries can be found on The Morning Call's Web site, http://www.mcall.com .

O'Donnell hopes her efforts, which include leading the planning for a cancer awareness week at her school this fall, will create greater awareness of the support gap that teens with cancer face in the Lehigh Valley.

''I've already gone through some of the toughest moments in my life,'' said O'Donnell, who will be a senior this fall. ''But I hope that in the future, others in my place will have access to greater support.''

Like O'Donnell, Nancy Ronco decided to do something about the lack of cancer support groups in the Lehigh Valley after her young child was diagnosed with cancer three years ago.

Ronco founded the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley, a network of parents and professionals that strives to provide children with cancer and their families with support programs and recreational services.

Most of the children involved in the foundation's activities are younger than 11. Ronco said she has been contacted by a few families with teenagers with cancer, but believes they simply may not know where to turn.

''For a long time, we in the Lehigh Valley have not been fully aware of the needs children with cancer face,'' Ronco said.

Maria Kammetler, a marketing administrator for Lehigh Valley Hospital, where O'Donnell received treatment, said the hospital does not provide support programs, but refers patients to the Wellness Community of the Greater Lehigh Valley, which is part of a national nonprofit organization that provides support and educational programs to people with cancer and their families.

''We feel bad that [O'Donnell] could not find the type of experience she felt she needed,'' Kammetler said. ''Sometimes [programs] are out there but the lack of information keeps people from participating.''

The Wellness Community has a support program for young adults 18 and older, but does not serve those who are younger, said the center's program director, Pat McGettigan.

''We started as an organization that geared itself for adults and their needs,'' said McGettigan, who expects the Wellness Community to discuss whether to also provide services for children during its annual meeting later this year. ''I have begun to get requests for them.''

Since being in remission this spring, O'Donnell said she has increasingly regained her strength and begun doing things other people her age do, such as getting a part-time job, driving a hand-me-down car and dancing at her prom.

O'Donnell plans to study marine biology in college and remain active in theater.

''I've met so many incredible people since I was diagnosed last year who have been really helpful to me,'' O'Donnell said. ''I also want to be able to share my experiences with other people my age.''

kevin.penton@mcall.com

610-861-3638

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