Lifestyle

Islander student takes on leukemia with grace

Cristina Scalzo, 16, is pictured with her mother, Carmen Scalzo. Cristina will be a junior at Mercer Island High School in the fall. She has been battling high-risk lymphoblastic leukemia since October. The cancer is now in remission. - Linda Ball/Staff Photo
Cristina Scalzo, 16, is pictured with her mother, Carmen Scalzo. Cristina will be a junior at Mercer Island High School in the fall. She has been battling high-risk lymphoblastic leukemia since October. The cancer is now in remission.
— image credit: Linda Ball/Staff Photo

When Cristina Scalzo was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, her first reaction was concern about how to keep up with her schoolwork and homework.

Scalzo has had quite the journey since Oct. 30 last year when she got the news. She wasn’t feeling well, so her mom, Carmen Scalzo, took her to the doctor. It was determined that the disease had recently taken hold, but even that early on, more than 90 percent of her white blood cells were leukemic.

Scalzo is dealing with a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, characterized by an abnormal increase of white blood cells. With acute leukemia the immature blood cells increase in rapid numbers. Crowding of the cells makes the bone marrow unable to produce healthy blood cells. As in Scalzo’s case, immediate treatment is required due to the rapid progression and accumulation of the malignant cells, which can spill over into the blood stream and can spread to other organs. She was in treatment within 30 hours of her diagnosis at Children’s Hospital.

Scalzo’s cancer has not spread anywhere else, and she is now in remission. Carmen Scalzo said the nervous system is a sanctuary for the disease, so the doctors will have to keep an eye on her spinal fluid for several years.

“I think of myself as a cancer survivor,” Scalzo said.

She will soon enter into what is called the maintenance phase — her fourth phase of what has been intense therapy. She will continue to have blood work done every week to make sure her counts are where they should be.

She is upbeat, with a beaming smile, and is thrilled that she’ll be able to go back to school with the rest of her class in the fall. Scalzo managed to keep up with most of her sophomore curriculum. She is especially grateful to her English teacher Melissa Aaron and math teacher Mark Shafer, who came to her home weekly to tutor her.

She will be able to graduate with her class — the class of 2013, thanks to their help.

Equally exciting, she was elected vice president of her junior class. Scalzo said she went to the school after hours and put up signs, gave a speech and was elected. One of her best friends, Lottie Macaulay, was elected president.

Scalzo said her friends have been amazing.

“When I was diagnosed, they all dressed up in blue (her favorite color), even kids I didn’t know,” she said.

Scalzo and a team of nine, The Blue Crew, raised over $2,000 for the American Cancer Society, participating in Relay for Life last month. She said she is active with Young Life, Green Club (an environmental club at MIHS), and art club. She is also a member of Schools For Schools, raising funds for schools in Uganda.

At home, her two younger brothers, Anthony, 13, and Daniel, 10, continue to annoy her, she said with a smile. She said at first they did her favors, but now they are back to normal, but that is fine.

When the new school year begins on Aug. 31, she will more than likely be on a schedule of chemotherapy only every three to four weeks, plus medicine she will take at home, “to make it not come back,” she said.

After high school Scalzo plans to attend Seattle Pacific University or the University of Washington and study nursing.

“I want to be an oncology nurse at Children’s,” she said.

She will be a nurse who will certainly be able to relate to her patients, truly understanding their journey.

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