Teen races leukemia Runner: After a year of chemotherapy and home study, positive-thinking Becky Grabenstein resumes cross country with new perspective.

November 27, 1997|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Becky Grabenstein was not among the leaders three weeks ago at the Association of Independent Schools cross country championships, but she had more to celebrate than anyone who finished ahead of her.

On Nov. 5, the Institute of Notre Dame senior covered the 3.1-mile course in 28: 03 -- more than five minutes faster than she had run it five weeks earlier.

Her personal victory, however, wasn't over the rolling course at St. Timothy's. It was over leukemia.

Diagnosed a year ago, Grabenstein could not run for six months during intense chemotherapy and then waiting to regain her strength. She had not run in nine months when, in early August, she completed a mile on her first try. When she rejoined the Indians a few weeks later, she could finish 2.5 miles.

After that, Grabenstein steadily improved. Her time at St. Timothy's was her best of the season.

One year ago, it was through cross country that she first felt something was wrong.

During summer 1996, she had run every day, determined to be in peak shape by the end of August. When the Orioles were in town, she got an extra workout at Camden Yards hawking Italian ice in the stands.

The hard work paid off. By September, she was the Indians' No. 2 runner. But as the season wore on, she began to fade.

"I couldn't understand it," said Grabenstein, who is 17. "I was in the best shape, and you would expect to get better and better, but every practice, I got worse."

Other symptoms began to emerge -- headaches, a large bruise on her arm that she couldn't explain and swollen glands in her neck. Aware of the symptoms for leukemia, Grabenstein said she went to the doctor a week before Thanksgiving, hoping for a worst-case diagnosis of mononucleosis.

Instead, a blood test revealed acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a common form of childhood leukemia.

Immediately, she was admitted to the Sinai Hospital Pediatric Hematology Oncology Clinic. After a bone marrow aspiration -- a needle was inserted into the bone to remove marrow for testing -- she had several blood transfusions. That night, she began chemotherapy.

"We did know it was very treatable," said her mother, Christa Grabenstein. "Still, even if it's only a 5 percent chance, there is a chance [that she might not recover]. What you go through is absolute terror."

After the initial shock and the first five-day stay in the hospital, Grabenstein said she was worried only once, just before Christmas, when she should have been in remission but wasn't. On Christmas Eve, the doctor told her she was finally in remission.

That was hardly the end of her battle.

Treatment lasts 2 1/2 years, although it will never be as intense as during the first six months, because she will not need chemotherapy again if she stays in remission, which doctors expect.

The medication she continues to take has none of the side effects of chemotherapy, which made her nauseated and weak. She lost 20 pounds and her hair fell out.

Most of her junior year, Grabenstein was too weak to go to school. But with a home tutor and lesson plans from school, she kept up her 3.8 grade-point average.

'Optimistic and upbeat'

"When she was getting chemo, she would be doing her schoolwork and really not batting an eyelash," said Dr. Ruth Luddy, one of the pediatric oncologists who treated her at Sinai. "She has been optimistic and upbeat, very positive in every aspect, so much so that people around her thought she wasn't really accepting her illness, that she was denying it."

Grabenstein said that was just her way of coping. By keeping her life as normal as possible, she could remain in control of the leukemia rather than having it control her.

"At first, I was in denial, I guess," said Grabenstein. "I thought I'd get a little chemo and go back to school. I treated it like it was an annoyance. When I realized I couldn't go back to school, because there were a lot of medications taking their time, it was hard. I wanted to be in school doing the day-to-day things they were doing."

In September, Grabenstein returned to IND. She had regained 20 pounds and looked amazingly fit, but her hair had just started to grow again.

"When she came back in August, she was wearing a wig in school," said cross country coach Pat Payne, "but when she came to practice, she took it off. She wanted to be Becky, and the wig wasn't Becky."

Grabenstein said she never liked the wig but was reluctant to be seen without it.

"I had to take the wig off to change for practice, so everyone saw," she said. "I had the 'GI Jane' crew-cut look. Everyone said they liked it and that I didn't need the wig. I guess I kind of needed to hear that."

She never wore the wig again -- not even for her senior portraits. She could have had the pictures taken again -- her hair had barely begun to grow -- but she was satisfied with them.

Trying to look fashion model-perfect isn't important anymore, she said.

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