Chugiak High senior Sarah Matthew, flanked by her parents Julius and Edna at their home, is battling brain cancer but graduated with her class on Wednesday. The seniors also are hosting a prom in her honor, to replace the one she missed while in Seattle for treatment.
On Feb. 4, 2011, Chugiak High senior Sarah Matthew's biggest worry was finding a prom dress. A week later, she was having brain surgery.
Since then, Matthew, 17, has spent every day battling brain cancer. But on Wednesday, she got to be a normal kid again, walking across the stage at Sullivan Arena as one of 275 members of the CHS class of 2011.
It's a walk she almost wasn't able to make.
'It was so hard.'
Matthew's story begins on a Friday in February, when she and her mom, Edna, were driving to Anchorage to look for a dress. Sarah had a headache, but Edna thought it was just a cold. Then her daughter started vomiting.
"I thought she had a migraine," Edna recalled during an interview in the family's home earlier this month.
They drove to Alaska Regional Hospital, where Edna said doctors took a CAT scan and then sent Sarah home to rest. But on the drive home, Edna's cell phone rang. The doctor on the other end said they needed to return to the hospital. Immediately.
"He goes, 'This is what you do: Take the next exit and turn around right now,' " Edna said.
Sarah was admitted to the hospital, and by early the next morning had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. By Monday, Edna and her husband, Julius, were at Seattle Children's Hospital praying Sarah would live.
"Edna and I lived at the hospital for a month," Julius recalled.
Sarah had surgery shortly after the family arrived in Seattle, and she began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation shortly after. For two and a half months she had to endure the painful, nauseating and embarrassing side effects of the treatment. For the last three weeks, she was sick almost nonstop.
"It was so hard," she said. "The last three months really took it out of me."
'What is happening?'
Before Sarah got sick, she was about as typical as an Eagle River teenager gets. She drove a sporty Pontiac with personalized "MKTRBL" license plates, played hockey and dreamed of going to school at UAA to one day become a veterinarian. She was an honors student who Julius said didn't cause trouble and got along with everyone.
"She's really laid back, easygoing," Julius said of his eldest daughter (Sarah has a sister, Julia, 15, and a brother, Stephen, 11).
But in the months leading up to her diagnosis, Sarah had been acting strangely, her parents said. Normally outgoing and carefree, their daughter began to stress out about seemingly minor things.
"She started having anxiety," Edna said. "Just out of the blue, she started being anxious about everything."
Sarah's grades also began to slip. She couldn't keep up in her pre-calculus class.
"It was just really uncharacteristic for her," Julius said. "Edna and I were talking and we were like, 'What is happening?'"
'Do what you gotta do.'
The three remained in Seattle for 10 weeks as Sarah struggled with her treatment. She found comfort in little things as she endured the loss of much of her long, black hair. Friends from school sent Teddy bears and cards; students and faculty bought her a new iPad. And she wasn't bedridden the entire time.
"There's fun," she said.
What was her favorite way to pass the time between treatments?
"Going to the movies with my mom," she said.
Edna said the duo found an old theater near the hospital and would take mother-daughter trips to the movies something Sarah's therapists encouraged.
"They said it's good therapy for her to be out in the community," Edna said.
The movies helped to make the family's time in Seattle more bearable, as did the support they received from Seattle Children's Hospital, the University of Washington (where Sarah also went for treatment) and Ronald McDonald House, where Edna and Julius stayed when they weren't at the hospital. Hospital staff gave Sarah and Edna rides to the movies, and Julius said the folks at Ronald McDonald House went out of their way to accommodate the family during its ordeal.
"That just took so much of the burden off," he said.
The entire process, he said, has been a testament to the kindness of others. Julius, a business representative with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said the union said to forget about work and focus on his family.
"They have been so understanding. They just said, 'Go do what you gotta do, we'll see you when you get back,'" he said.
'It's a community.'
Julius got emotional when he talked about the support that's been shown to the family by the Chugiak-Eagle River community. Since word of Sarah's condition got out, he said the outpouring of support has been unbelievable.
"The amount of prayers and support from everywhere, from our work, the community, schools, it's just been amazing," he said.
Along with the iPad, the Chugiak students and faculty also made Sarah a "Get Well Soon" DVD to send her in Seattle, and dozens of kids were waiting at the airport when she returned home last month. Because Sarah ended up missing prom, the Eagle River Lions Club agreed to host a special prom just for her, set for Saturday, May 14. And thanks to a donation by the IBEW, she got to buy a fancy purple gown in Seattle to wear to the big dance. Also, her best friend, Terri Huffer, visited her for five days in Seattle.
"That was really nice," Sarah said.
That's not all. When Stephen's Blue Devils club hockey team won a state championship earlier this year, they wore commemorative ribbons on their helmets and dedicated the win to Sarah. And this year's Eagle River High softball team is wearing patches on their jerseys that read "Team Sarah Matthew" and feature a gray ribbon for brain cancer awareness.
Charley Peyton, an assistant with the Wolves' softball team, coached Sarah a couple years ago on Chugiak's junior varsity team. Peyton said Eagle River's players jumped at the chance to support their friend from Chugiak.
"Even though we're rivals, it's a community," Peyton said.
After returning home, Sarah resumed classes at Chugiak, with Edna hanging out in the office in case her daughter felt sick.
"Chugiak has been so wonderful," Edna said. "Even though I don't work there, they let me hang out in case she doesn't feel good."
'She's getting better.'
Sarah has good days and bad days. Recently she spent some time in the emergency room with a bad headache. Her road to recovery isn't going to be an easy one. The family has to return to Seattle later this month for more therapy, which Sarah likely will have to endure for at least another year.
But she's getting better, and said she can't wait to start driving again and being a teenager.
"I miss staying up late," she said. "I don't get to stay up late anymore because it really wipes me out."
Edna said she knows her daughter is feeling better because Sarah has begun to act more like her old self.
"She's getting better because she's starting to get lippy," Edna joked, telling about a recent argument they had about Sarah going out with her friends.
"She said, 'Mom, no offense, but I spend enough time with you already.' "
Sarah knows her journey after graduation will be more difficult than most of her fellow 2011 grads. But she said the support and kindness she's received from her classmates, friends and even strangers lets her know that she's not fighting alone. And, she said, it makes her feel something else, too.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or email@example.com.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.