R.J. Agostinelli missed seven months of school while being treated for
leukemia. He returned at the end of March.
At age 11, Ronald (R.J.) Agostinelli was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. He missed seven months of elementary school while having chemotherapy. Here, R.J. talks about what it was like returning to his class after a long absence.
My parents brought me to Children's Hospital Boston last summer because I had high fevers and weird pains in my joints. The doctors diagnosed me with leukemia, and told me I was going to need chemotherapy, a special drug that would fight the cancer cells in my blood. They told me I needed the chemotherapy to get better, but it would also make me sick to my stomach and tired, and other people's germs would be dangerous to me. I wouldn't be able to play outside or be around groups of people while I was in treatment.
When I found out I wouldn't be starting fifth grade for at least six months, I was a little disappointed. Some kids might be happy to skip school, but not me. I like learning, and I especially like hanging out with my pals. I found out that instead of riding the bus to school, I would be staying home, and school would come to me. I had a personal tutor who visited me every day for a lesson. She taught me all the subjects my friends were taking—and I got to learn in my pajamas if I wanted.
At home, I got to be in charge of my own schedule. After tutoring, I could choose to play with my trucks, listen to music or do homework. I became an expert on the computer and got really good at entertaining myself. In the evening, I got to practice another hobby of mine: cooking. My mom would make dinner—tacos or chicken nuggets or soup—and I'd help her.
But I really missed my friends. I'm what you call a "people person," and being stuck in the house all the time got so boring. Because I was so sensitive to germs, I couldn't go to any public places, like restaurants or movies. When I left the house, it was either to go to Children's or to the Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
After seven months, I was so excited when my doctors told me I could go back to school. I was a little nervous, too. The chemotherapy made me lose all the hair on my head, so I looked different. And I felt a little different. I still had to take medication each day, so I would be at back at school while taking drugs that could sometimes make my stomach hurt. I wondered if my friends would think I looked strange, or whether they would understand why I had been gone so long. During recess, I used to play football with the other kids. I wasn't good at catching the far passes, so sometimes I'd run with the ball and get tackled. I knew I couldn't do that for a while.
On my first day back, my nurses and Child Life specialists from Children's came with me and talked to my class about cancer. They explained why it was important to my health that everyone wash their hands and stay home from school if they were sick. I answered my classmates' questions, and they had a lot!
Now, I've been back at school for a few weeks and I'm getting back into the swing of things. I love being back in my regular classes, even if I'm only going for a few hours a day (my mom says I have to take it slow at first). It's great to be around my friends again, and I've even made some new ones.
For other kids who are going through this same experience, I'd like to give them this message: Leukemia is hard to deal with in the beginning, and there are a lot of challenges you've got to get through. But it does get easier as you go along. I promise.
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