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Special graduates - Facing fear, facing the future

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Samantha Simon said that and I will never doubt anything she says. The 17-year-old was one of 15 young people attending a special ceremony in June marking their graduation from high school. They wore traditional caps and gowns, but the setting wasn't the school gym. The students, along with family, friends and teachers, gathered in a place they'd come to know well: Manhattan's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The teens were part of a program called Hospital Schools. New York City's Department of Education provides teachers for young people who are being treated for cancer or other debilitating diseases or injuries that prevent them from taking classes at their regular schools. Forty-two hospitals participate in the program, which has served students for the last 30 years. Officially, the students graduate from their own high schools, but this year Memorial Sloan-Kettering decided to honor its "graduating" patients in a special way.

These young people face challenges that most adults would find daunting. Samantha Simon, for instance, has been getting radiation treatments for the last two years for the same type of bone cancer that killed her mother. Megan Popkin, who delivered the graduate address, has a muscle cancer. Sylvia Hobbs has survived leukemia and a serious leg infection. Today, each of them, like most of their fellow graduates, is looking forward to the next phase of their lives - as college freshmen.

Being able to keep up with their studies brings a sense of normalcy to these remarkable young people at an extraordinarily painful and difficult time. Mary Maher, principal of the Hospital Schools program, says, "In these schools the teacher comes in the room and they're so happy to see them because everyone else is coming at them taking blood or to do an IV."

Samantha Simon's teacher, for example, helped her with more than economics, chemistry and English. Mary Ellen Fitzsimmons held books for her student when she was too weak to hold them herself. And when even reading was too much for the young woman, Fitzsimmons read aloud to her. "Some days, she didn't feel well, but we did it anyway," says the teacher.

I think that attitude was what impressed me most about this story when it made the news. These young people, facing a life-or-death crisis, must will themselves to keep going, despite their fear, despite their suffering. They focus on the future, knowing that they might not ever make it past today. I can't imagine how a teenager, consumed with all the day-to-day dreams and desires that are part of growing up, learns to handle a devastating diagnosis. I can't imagine how their parents handle it either. I can only feel awe at the accomplishment of all who live in hope, not in some theoretical pie-in-the-sky way, but through minute-by-minute choices to keep looking forward and moving forward - no matter what.

I hope I remember those young people now and then, and say a prayer for them. I hope you do, too.

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Dennis Heaney is president of The Christophers

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For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, "How to Live with Cancer - Ideas for Healing, Help and Hope," write: The Christophers, 12 East 48th St., New York, N.Y. 10017; or e-mail:


The Christophers ,
Dennis Heaney - ,



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