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3-time cancer survivor teen inspires in Mass.

By Douglas Moser
The Eagle-Tribune / May 26, 2012
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METHUEN, Mass.—Allison Hawkes is a Methuen High senior, a busy athlete and co-chair of the city's Relay for Life Event.

At 18, she is also a three-time cancer survivor and, according to one of her teachers, a symbol of the whole purpose for organizing something like the Relay, which raises money for the American Cancer Society for cancer research.

"The reason we do it is success stories like Allie," said Carol Guselli, a faculty adviser and event coordinator with fellow high school teacher David LaCroix for the Methuen Relay for Life.

Hawkes is one of three co-chairs of the Methuen Relay for Life, one of the few student-run Relay events in the country, and has been getting more and more involved over the last four years. She, senior Eric LaCroix and junior Jake Fabrizio are this year's chairs.

"It's something I could give back," Hawkes said.

"It's awful," she said of the disease, "and I don't want anybody else to have to go through that."

In kindergarten, Hawkes was diagnosed with a neuroblastoma tumor, a recurring cancer that grows on nerve cells and usually affects infants and children, according to the National Institutes of Health. The tumor grew to stage four by the time it was discovered, meaning it was spreading to other organs, and had pressed into her kidney, which had to be removed.

Hawkes doesn't remember much about that first round of treatment, other than bits and pieces, such as her mother's shock at the diagnosis, feeling sick constantly, so many nights in the hospital that they all ran together, making a paper Christmas tree in her hospital room.

After nine hours of surgery, she endured a harsh round of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. While it was difficult, she came through it with a clean bill of health.

Then, when Hawkes was 10, doctors found another tumor. A little older and more aware, she found herself making frequent trips to Boston for chemo and radiation treatments, though this time the cancer went into remission without surgery.

In the following years, Hawkes said she was able to feel "normal," and kept busy with a litany of activities like dance, soccer, basketball, swimming and gymnastics. The only apparent remnant of her illness was that, with one kidney, she had to keep hydrated.

But another tumor had begun to form. After swimming season in late 2010, Hawkes began a third round of treatments with her family by her side supporting her.

"After being normal for a couple years, it just crushed me," she said. "I was back in the hospital, was pulled from sports and felt like I couldn't do what I wanted to do. It was depressing."

A new oral treatment, while foul tasting, was easier on her body, she said. She didn't feel as ill and didn't lose her hair. Most importantly, she was able to go to school regularly. On the occasional days when she did miss classes, her friends brought her a video and a quilt they had made, and made sure she felt included when she came back to school.

"It was amazing, having the support and knowing they still wanted to be my friend," she said. "It made me feel good."

Her involvement with the Relay for Life started her freshman year, when then-seniors Scott Nyim and Madison Aleksa created the Methuen Relay by recruiting friends, family and faculty to raise money for the all-night walkathon. That year, she walked on the high school team as a two-time survivor. The second year, she spoke during the luminaria, a candle-lighting ceremony that honors people who have died from cancer. Last year, she was on the ceremony committee.

Hawkes' strength comes from her determination to maintain control of her life after years of the recurring tumors disrupting her youth.

"I don't want this to dictate my life," she said. "It's not anger, but it's like I want to beat this."

While the fight in some small ways has gotten easier for her -- the advanced treatments, early detection, the support of her family and friends -- it has injected her character with determination.

"It made me stronger and gave me the will to do my best at everything, to be the best version of myself," she said.

This year, Hawkes is "the face of the Relay," Guselli said.

A week before participants were scheduled to turn in their donation, the Relay had raised about $150,000. Some continue to raise money up to and during the event, which is June 2 at the high school track.

Organizers are aiming for at least $320,000, which would put the Methuen Relay's total over $1 million in its four year existence.

"If we are able to reach our goal of $1 million in four years, to me that would mean the world knowing that when we work hard for something we are passionate about than our hard work can go a long way," she said. "That million dollars represents all the lives we are able to change and it gives me hope for a better future without cancer."

Guselli said 106 teams with 1,117 individuals have signed up.

Her dedication to the Relay will last beyond her senior year at Methuen High, she said.

"When I interviewed for college, I asked them if there was a Relay," she said.

She decided on Wheelock College in Boston, where she will study early childhood education. And yes, Wheelock is involved in a Relay for Life.

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