CdM graduate became the ‘Platelet Princess’ after leukemia diagnosis

Newport Beach native Brooke Kenerson, 22, has been battling acute promyelocytic leukemia since last fall.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Brooke Kenerson sat in the City of Hope Newport Beach infusion bay on Tuesday morning, a coffee in her hand and a smile on her face that couldn’t be obscured by her face mask.

She was getting ready to literally put poison in her body, an arsenic trioxide drip, as part of her chemotherapy for acute promyelocytic leukemia. The 2018 Corona del Mar High graduate was diagnosed with that form of cancer, which affects about one in 250,000 United States residents, last November while living in New York City.

That sounds like an unlucky lottery to win. Yet, Kenerson was upbeat on this day. Her leukemia is in remission and this was her penultimate morning of treatment for this round of chemotherapy. She remarked on the hospital room’s ocean view.

“I don’t feel like [the diagnosis] changed me,” said Kenerson, 22. “I feel like I changed how you can look at this process, just being super-positive about it. That’s how I am as a person, so it didn’t make me feel differently. I made something like this feel manageable and like a positive thing.

“The timing couldn’t have been better. I got to be home for Christmas. There’s a lot of things that lined up, for me to feel like this was the best situation I could be in for how sick I was.”

Friends and family have watched her change into the “Platelet Princess,” or TPP for short, a fun nickname that she created with friends as she has shared every step of her journey on an Instagram page.

Brooke Kenerson graduated from Corona del Mar High School in 2018 and Duke University last year.
Brooke Kenerson graduated from Corona del Mar High School in 2018 and Duke University last year.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Her platelet count when she entered NYC’s Mount Sinai hospital was about 3,000; the normal range is 150,000 to 450,000. She was in the intensive care unit for five days before transferring to a long-term room.

Kenerson was holed up there for more than a month after her Nov. 8 diagnosis. The room grew to resemble her apartment, with a Christmas tree and a TV console that featured both a snack drawer and game drawer.

She watched the World Cup with family and friends. During one match, her older sister Paige made a “Platelet Pub” in the room, complete with snack mix and Arnold Palmers to drink.

“She really made it her own space,” said Brooke’s best friend, Izzy Deckey, a 2018 Sage Hill School graduate who has been close with her since they were fifth-graders at Harbor Day School. “All of the nurses were in awe. In general, she just took this whole experience and was like, ‘I’m making this something I can tackle.’ She took this terrible time and made it something enjoyable.”

Kenerson went to Duke University and Deckey attended Brown University, each graduating last spring. They moved to New York and somehow got apartments literally across the street from each other in the Nolita neighborhood of Lower Manhattan.

That weekend in early November was supposed to be a joyful one, with Deckey running the New York City Marathon — her first full marathon — on Sunday. Christina Davenport, another CdM graduate who lives in the city, was also there to cheer her on, and former Sea King Raleigh Garner flew in from Denver.

Kenerson wasn’t feeling well but she still showed up on race day, despite testing positive for strep throat the day before. She also had bleeding gums, which she now knows is a common symptom of leukemia.

“Looking back at it, I cannot believe she ran around Manhattan for me to cheer me on while all of this was happening,” Deckey said.

Brooke Kenerson decorated her hospital room at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, making it her own.
Brooke Kenerson decorated her hospital room at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, making it her own.
(Courtesy of Brooke Kenerson)

But when her condition wasn’t better by the following Monday, Kenerson went to urgent care. The doctor there told her she needed to go to the emergency room immediately. She was unable to speak due to her throat condition, but Deckey was there by her side, despite being immunosuppressed following the marathon.

Kenerson was transferred from Mount Sinai’s downtown location to the main location on the upper east side of Manhattan. Another Newport friend who went to Duke, Claire Neushul, went with her.

The next day brought a bone marrow biopsy, and the news that Brooke had acute promyelocytic leukemia. Her aunt, Jennifer Kenerson, drove from Connecticut to be by her side. Deckey, a pre-med student whose father is a doctor, was able to communicate information to Kenerson’s family.

“Honestly, it was kind of a relief in some ways,” Brooke Kenerson said. “There’s so many different kinds of leukemia, and I was prepared for the worst kind. It was great news.”

A couple of days later, Kenerson’s mother, Marcy and aunt, Cindy Walters, who lives in Newport Coast, also flew to New York.

The weeks around Thanksgiving would bring oldest sister Paige, 24, and her boyfriend from the Bay Area, as well as Kenerson’s father, Whit. Kenerson also has a younger sister, Reece, who attends Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; all three played on the CdM girls’ tennis team.

Whit Kenerson, who coaches tennis at Sage Hill, was getting ready for the Lightning girls’ CIF playoff semifinal match against rival St. Margaret’s when he heard his middle daughter’s diagnosis.

“All I heard was, ‘leukemia,’” he said. “Of course, as a dad, I assumed the worst. It was good to have tennis as a fallback, because I would have freaked out.”

Indeed, the Platelet Princess has stayed maybe the calmest person throughout this process. Others have helped in their own ways. Another Newport Beach friend, Cole Friedman, designed sweatshirts to support Kenerson and benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Brooke Kenerson, shown in 2017, was a standout doubles player for the Corona del Mar High girls' tennis team.
Brooke Kenerson, shown in 2017, was a standout doubles player for the Corona del Mar High girls’ tennis team.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The hoodie reads, “Tough times don’t last, tough cookies do.” Another of Kenerson’s nicknames is “Brookie Cookie.”

Friends and family, including Kenerson’s roommates, twins Claire and Nora Woodruff, have also committed to run or walk the New York City Half-Marathon in March in honor of Kenerson. Team “The Tough Cookies” has already raised more than $15,000 for the LLS cause.

“It was supposed to be a surprise, but now I know about it,” Brooke Kenerson said with a smile. “So far, the fundraising has been going awesome. A lot of my close friends, I think their network now follows my story. The amount of people that I don’t know who have reached out or ordered hoodies is amazing.”

Kenerson is doing well. She restarted remote work with her Amazon Web Services job a couple of weeks ago. She flies back to the East Coast on Tuesday, and plans to continue her chemotherapy — which also includes four pills that she takes twice a day — at Mount Sinai in New York.

City of Hope Newport Beach nurse manager Kerry O’Neil has enjoyed interacting with Kenerson, as she visited every weekday for nearly a month for this round of her outpatient treatment.

“We love seeing her come in every morning, because she’s just always smiling,” O’Neil said. “She’s really just been a pleasure to have. Some people would not be able to handle it, but she’s brought her fighting spirit with her.”

She hopes to do outpatient treatment at the Chelsea branch, which is much closer to her apartment. The arsenic is four weeks on, four weeks off, and four rounds would be complete by July if that remains on schedule.

Next month she turns 23. It’s her golden birthday, as it falls on Feb. 23.

Golden is how Brooke Kenerson continues to feel.

“I genuinely feel like the luckiest person ever because of the friends I have and my family,” she said, starting to tear up. “When 915 people follow you on Instagram and comment on your pictures, text you on the side and call you and visit you in the hospital … I didn’t know that many people cared about me.”

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