By William K. Alcorn
Samantha Skowron loves filet mignon, is a freshman cheerleader at Austintown Fitch High School and has replaced Facebook with Twitter.
She also has kicked Hodgkin’s lymphoma stage 2 cancer to the curb.
Her cancer in remission, the tall, slim teen, who enjoys hanging out and having sleepovers with her girlfriends, also is brave enough to speak about her experience at Saturday’s St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Give Thanks Walk at Southern Park Mall in Boardman.
Registration for the indoor 5K walk is at the food court entrance at 7 a.m. There is no registration fee or minimum donation required to participate in the event that starts at 8 a.m.
The event, hosted by radio personalities, Doug and Mary Ann from K105 Country, includes free food, music and children-friendly activities.
Samantha, whose nickname is Sam, will be 15 on Thanksgiving Day, giving her family and friends something extra to celebrate and for which to give thanks.
Sam no doubt will give special thanks if her new bedroom, a birthday present, is finished by then.
Samantha is the daughter of Jennifer Sabol O’Hara of Austintown and Christopher Skowron of Ashburn, Va., and stepdaughter of Sean O’Hara. Her sister, Emily O’Hara, 7, is in second grade at Watson Elementary School.
Her grandparents are Charlene Sabol and the late Joseph of Canfield; Vilma and Joseph Skowron of Austintown; and step-grandparents, Bill O’Hara and the late Jackie O’Hara of Struthers.
Samantha’s cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, formerly known as Hodgkin’s disease, is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is a part of the immune system. If it spreads, the disease can compromise the body’s ability to fight infection.
In her case, with no clear symptoms of the disease, her cancer was discovered at an early stage because her pediatrician, Dr. Booker T. Bair, ordered a chest X-ray almost as an afterthought.
Her mother said Samantha had a fever for a couple of days, but she didn’t think too much of it until her daughter nearly passed out while attending church at Immaculate Heart of Mary. The next day Jennifer called Dr. Bair and scheduled an appointment for Samantha for two days later, Feb. 1, when her blood and urine were tested, and she had the chest X-ray.
During Jennifer’s eight-minute drive from the doctor’s to her job at AT&T in Boardman, the doctor called and told her to come back to the office immediately.
“I asked, ‘Is it bad?’ He finally told me the X-ray showed a mass in her chest. He was crying. He said the radiologist believes it is lymphoma. I felt empty,” Jennifer said.
Doctors estimated the mass behind her breast bone, about 5 inches long by 3 inches wide, had been growing six months to eight months.
“Dr. Bair said the radiologist asked him why he had ordered an X-ray. The doctor said he didn’t know,” Jennifer said.
The X-ray led to discovery of the lymphoma before it had spread, and after 12 weeks of chemotherapy and more than three weeks of radiation treatments at St. Jude in Memphis, Tenn., and at home at Akron Children’s Hospital of the Mahoning Valley, Samantha’s cancer was declared in remission March 15.
She missed nine weeks of school but was able to graduate with her Austintown Middle School class.
“I didn’t think it was real,” said Samantha of when her mother told her the diagnosis. But, she said she was not scared. “I never thought I was going to die.”
Samantha is more familiar than most teens with childhood cancer.
Two cousins on her biological father’s side of the family had cancer. One died from leukemia, and another has Stage 4 Hodgkin’s that is in remission.
Also, Nick Avery, son of Samantha’s longtime baby sitter and family friend, Wendy Avery of Canfield, died at 15 of leukemia.
Avery, former director of Growing Place Preschool at Tabernacle Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Austintown, had conducted St. Jude Trike-A-Thon fundraisers for several years at the preschool.
Because of that, she and her family were invited to visit St. Jude. Nick, 14, at the time, left, saying that if ever he got cancer, “this is where I want to come.”
A few months later, he was diagnosed with leukemia, said Avery, who now serves as a volunteer on the St. Jude Family Advisory Council with a focus on bereavement support. “We felt we had been there for a reason,” she said.
Because of Avery’s and her experience at St. Jude, Jennifer is passionate in her support of the hospital.
“It’s the greatest place ever, and everything insurance doesn’t pay for is free. What parent of a child with cancer wouldn’t want to take their child to the best place for care?” she said.
St. Jude patients must be referred by a doctor. In Samantha’s case, she was part of a protocol study on Hodgkin’s to make treatments less toxic.
“I felt like an experiment,” said Samantha. But, she said she was never sick with the chemotherapy or radiation.
St. Jude also may be in Samantha’s career plans.
Even before she was diagnosed herself, because of the childhood cancer in her family, Samantha had decided she wanted to work as a radiologist at the hospital.
Samantha and her mother invite people to come to the St. Jude Give Thanks Walk and join Team Sami, composed of Samatha’s family and friends, in raising money for St. Jude.
St. Jude requires $1.9 million a day to operate. Every dollar raised counts, Jennifer said.
Samantha’s advice to other children diagnosed with cancer or other serious disease: “Don’t give up.”