By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
In August, Michelle Collins joins the freshman class of the University of Texas in Austin.
It wasn’t always clear that the 18-year-old would reach that dream.
When she was 13, after a doctor visit to determine why the competitive dancer was always exhausted, she received devastating news. It wasn’t that the five hours of dancing practice and school were too much for the youngster who had been dancing for 11 years. She had developed cancer.
“Cancer was the last thing on my mind. It was a shock to all of us. I thought I just had a low blood count with a high fever. They did a bone marrow biopsy and everything changed,” she recalled.
In 2013 Collins, a vibrant, lithe dancer entering her first semester of 9th grade, was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia. Complications arose and she watched in dismay as she lost her dancer muscles, her classroom routine, her hair, her energy. But not her spirit.
“When they first tell you, you don’t know what to expect. Will she be able to dance? I remember calling her dance teacher because she was to be in a dance competition that weekend,” said her mother, Victoria Collins of Sugar Land.
Chemotherapy started the day after she was diagnosed and she spent a week in the hospital. She returned home and developed stomach cramping. She required surgery and spent 44 days in the hospital and chemotherapy had to be stopped.
By 2014 she’d endured at least 10-day hospital stays every month except December. “They told us she was really touch and go. We started a white blood cell transfusion drive. MD Anderson is one of the few hospitals in the country that does that,” said her mother.
Through social media they found donors. This was in February when streets were icing. They had four white blood cell transfusions that saved her life, said her mother.
Fighting cancer is tough enough. But when you are a creative teenager just wanting to fit in, the physical and emotional upheaval can be overwhelming. That’s where the Children’s Art Project at the MD Anderson Cancer Center created a lifeline.
“While treatment is a top priority for any patient, teens going through treatment have unique needs – including the emotional, social and academic toll it can take on them during an already confusing time in their lives. Meeting these needs help motivate teens, like Michelle, to get through treatment,” said Katrina Burton, spokesperson for the Children’s Art Project at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
For more than 30 years, the Children’s Art Project has been making life better for children with cancer. It started as a volunteer’s idea for a card project and blossomed into a program where patients who are interested create and color designs which are turned into ornaments, gift cards, ceramics and clothing that the public can buy. They have a website with a brief bio of the artists and their works which can be purchased, www.childrensart.org
The profits go back into the program funding summer camps, scholarships, child life programming and fun events. Over the 30 years, more than $20 million has gone back to M.D. Anderson to fund patient focused programs.
Collins was motivated to persevere with the support of her family, friends and the MD Anderson team. She found a creative outlet through their program which encourages young hospital bound cancer patients to create. With pen and color in hand, she created designs which turned into boxes of gift ideas.
“It was really cool, the first one I did and they asked me to do others specifically for the art project. I did a Christmas one and ornaments and it was selling like hotcakes. The first time I saw them, it was this giant box of everything they made of my drawings. It was really cool to see it made into a product,” said Collins.
Because she was spending so much time in the hospital, Collins had to make some educational adjustments. “I worked really hard to get back to regular school with my friends on campus,” she recalled.
Throughout her chemotherapy treatments, which deplete the immune system, she suffered many fevers. “Whenever you have a fever, you have to stay in the hospital for four days and I had a fever once a month for a year.”
She also endured 18 spinal taps. Her determination comes through as she speaks.
“You work around school. I tried to go after school and do them without anesthesia. If you had anesthesia, you had to spend the whole day in the morning so I started doing it without anesthesia,” she said.
Before the cancer diagnosis, she decided to transfer from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts to St. Agnes Academy where all of her childhood friends were attending.
She finished her freshman year in an online school and she wanted to start her sophomore year on the St. Agnes campus. But since she was still behind for the college prep school, someone suggested she start over and graduate with a younger sister. Collins wasn’t having it.
“Michelle was like, I am not throwing away a whole semester and I’m not going to go down a grade and be with my kid sister” her mom recalled with a laugh.
So she spent her first semester of the sophomore year with the Tenney School in Houston which gives students one on one attention. “Tenney took her in. They got the curriculum from Michelle’s teachers. It’s a very hard school but she made the Deans list and honor roll,” said her mother.
So what kept her going?
“I always had a strong mindset and I was very determined to get something done. I had this vision of myself going to the college I want, living a certain life after high school. I wanted to get back to that state of normalcy so I kept up with my grades and I wanted a normal social life. I‘ve loved Austin and the Longhorns since I was little. I really wanted to be there and it was the only school I applied to,” she said.
She will study fashion merchandising and pursue a double major with advertising. “I’ve always been into fashion and always been creative.” She spent two weeks in Philadelphia studying fashion.
Now she returns to the hospital every three months for a checkup, then it becomes twice a year and eventually once a year. She leaves August 19 for Austin.
“Over the past year, I don’t even have to think about cancer anymore. My hair grew back. My muscles are back. It made a huge difference in my life getting back to doing what everyone else was doing,” she said.
Her advice to young cancer patients; “keep going. You think you will never be normal again, whatever normal is, but keep your eye on what you really want. Be it school or whatever, keep going.”