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

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.

Teen-agers can sense immediately when "the limits are backing off," Schwied said. "One kid started getting into heavy metal and punk rock music, and started smoking cigarettes." When parents don't put down enough limits, the teen-ager may become depressed and may say things like, " 'I don't know why I'm doing what I'm doing,' " Schwied said.

Because teenhood is also a time when appearance becomes important, loss of hair can be hard to deal with. "The ones who don't have hair wear hats all the time," Schwied said. A cancer patient in the group whose hair was coming back in would come to the group wearing a hat and later would take it off "to show the group," Schwied said.

Hendryck has a full head of brown wavy hair now, but he has been bald twice, after each relapse. He chose not to wear a hat or get a wig, he said, although some of the students at his junior high called him Kojak. "They teased me and everything, but I didn't care, I just laughed."

Likes His Teachers

That was the year he spent most of his time by himself in the library. That, he admitted, was his worst year in school. But this year is better.

He likes all but one of his teachers. "I even like my math teachers, and I don't like math," Hendryck said. And he has been to three school dances. "I said I wouldn't miss a dance this year, except I missed one."

And he is doing well in school.

"He's very self-motivated," said Stanton Booth, Hendryck's resource teacher at Buena Park High School. "My job is to make modifications at school," Booth said. "He's taking a full high school load," although he misses a lot of school because of his chemotherapy treatments.

There was only one day when he wasn't feeling well that Hendryck put his head down on his desk, Booth said. Hendryck usually works through the two-hour class without being told what to do, Booth said. "His work seems to nourish him."

"I treat him no different than anyone else," Booth said. "It crosses your mind (that Hendryck has cancer), but I don't preoccupy myself with it. I see him as a very sharp kid with a lot of imagination and a terrific sense of humor."

Classmates Don't Know

Because he doesn't want to be treated differently, Hendryck said, most of his classmates don't know he has cancer. If someone asks why he is absent so much, Hendryck tells them he has leukemia.

"The ones who know me say, 'Are you going to die?' I say, 'Yes, I'm going to die, but not of cancer.' "

"I used to think about cancer and I thought of death immediately," said Nellie Mejia, Hendryck's mother. When a doctor first told her that her son had leukemia, she said, "I thought he was going to die that minute."

Mejia said she was angry and she cried, but she has learned to "live with the fear" that she might lose her son.

"When he's not sick, we don't talk about the disease at all," she said. "There are good times." When he is sick, she takes care of him and she spoils him, making his favorite foods--hamburgers, tacos and lemon meringue pie, she said. "He's been a brave boy," Mejia said. "Whenever we told him, 'You have to go to the hospital,' he said, 'OK.' He was bald twice and he never complained. Going to school with a bald head is not easy."

'Always Want to Be There'

When he was first diagnosed, "I used to live for Hendryck," Mejia said. "I was planning on taking a travel agency course for a long time, but I don't because I think: 'What if they call from school and say he's sick?' I always want to be there," she said.

Hendryck's relapses have been hard on her, she said. "After 15 months with no signs (of the leukemia), I thought, 'He's cured!' Then came the relapse and I thought he was going to die again. Then I learned to live with it."

When Hendryck first was diagnosed, Mejia said, she looked up leukemia in an encyclopedia, and has since read anything she can find on the subject. "You learn a lot of things," she said. The most important thing she learned, she said, is that "it can be curable."

"Sometimes I look at pictures of Hendryck and I think I've been so lucky to have him for 15 years," she said. Sometimes, when she cries about it, Hendryck "tells me: 'It's going to be OK.' He has a lot of courage to go on,and that makes it easier for me."

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