Kelly Schwab's world didn't unravel as completely as some teens' lives have after she learned in July that her mother had breast cancer.
Fortunately, Donna Schwab was diagnosed early and didn't have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Not only is the Columbia mother's prognosis excellent, but, as Kelly puts it, she "looks and acts like herself."
Looking from the inside out on a cancer diagnosis and seeing how it rocks a family to its foundation, the junior at Long Reach High School realized she wanted to help teens cope with the pain and confusion that accompany a loved one's life-changing illness.
Kelly has joined forces with Debra Marciniak, a senior at Mount Hebron High, and Cara Koontz, a junior at Marriotts Ridge, to organize "Teens Together," a support and networking group for ages 13 to 18. The first monthly drop-in meeting will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. today.
In what now seems like karma, the three girls from three corners of the county discovered they shared the same desire at the same time.
Kelly and Debra, who weren't previously acquainted, sought out Mary Catherine Cochran, director of the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center, within weeks of each other.
Cochran, whose husband, Jay Koontz, died of brain cancer in 2003, put them in touch with each other and suggested that her daughter, Cara, already a high-school intern at the center, join the project.
Thrown together by fate, the three students have outlooks as alike as their personal stories are dissimilar.
Debra's mom, Danilsa Marciniak, was diagnosed with non- Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells, but that was a long time ago, when Debra was only in third grade. While her mom defeated it, she still suffers more easily from fatigue, Debra said.
Despite their differences, all three girls could identify with struggling to maintain a positive attitude around the stricken person, even when their own hearts were heavy, they said.
"When you're with other teens in a similar situation, they understand what you're going through without always having to talk about it," Kelly said.
To further the comfort that a mutual understanding can provide, the program will consist of online social networking, including a Facebook page, planning of community service projects and holding the drop-in sessions every third Sunday of the month. Already the three girls are working with Blossoms of Hope, the county tourism bureau's month-long series of breast cancer awareness activities.
But there will also be mindless games such as balloon volleyball, Go Fish and 60-second challenges that mimic a new TV game show — all slated for the kickoff today — so that teens can just "step back and get to know each other," Cara said.
"These activities will serve as an ice-breaker, making it an easy and casual situation," said Leslie Rogers, an oncology social worker and resource for Teens Together. "These kids share a special circumstance; it's good for them to know they're not going through it in a vacuum."
The group's mission has captured the attention of Victor A. Broccolino, president of Howard County General Hospital, where the cancer resource center is located in the Medical Pavilion.
"These young ladies' interest in giving back to the community reflects the true spirit of [Columbia founder] Jim Rouse," he said, adding that they will inspire their peers by example. "This is an incredible project."
To get more input about the direction they should take, the girls worked with a steering committee of teens. Also, Cochran and Kelly Lance, service and events coordinator for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, will serve as advisers.
Teens who have or who have had a family member with cancer have so much in common that being together only makes sense.
"Only telling their closest friends [about their family member's illness] is the hardest thing for teens," said Cochran. "They don't want to be treated differently by teachers and classmates."
"Yet telling people further removed from your life to get them up to speed on the situation can be exhausting," added Rogers, and this can cause teens to keep their feelings bottled up. This group is where they can release those pent-up emotions, if they choose.
Rogers said parents know instinctually where their own kids are developmentally, and she encourages adults to provide appropriate answers to hard questions.
"We all want to protect our kids from bad situations, but there's a delicate line between protection and sabotage," she said. "Parents don't want to build suspicion, so they need to establish trust.
"And they have to use the word ‘cancer' when they talk about being sick and even discuss their mortality, if need be," Rogers said.
Donna Schwab said she was fortunate to be diagnosed early with Stage 2 breast cancer and also "to avoid those nasty treatments — they were my biggest fear."
While she had a complete mastectomy, she said she's able to put that procedure, in which the affected breast is removed, into perspective.
"It's just a body part and it can be replaced [with reconstructive surgery]," she said. "My kids are young and need a mother and I can't replace me, so I know I'm darned lucky."
But Schwab said she'd rather discuss the impact of the support group that her daughter and two friends are launching, one that will be organized to continue on even after its founders graduate.
"I support their advocacy efforts and community service," Schwab said. "I feel like these girls are helping me to pay my good luck forward."
If you go
The first drop-in session of Teens Together will be held 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. today in the atrium of the new Medical Pavilion, 10710 Charter Drive, off Hickory Ridge Road in Columbia. There is no preregistration. Refreshments will be served. Information: 410-740-5858 or firstname.lastname@example.org.