SPOKANE - Carissa Outen crossed one of many selfdesignated finish lines Saturday when she graduated from North Central High School.
The 18-year-old has been fighting her second battle with a rare form of cancer at the same time she finishes her senior year. Her most cherished dreams are to do the things most students do in that memorable time: go to the prom, walk in graduation, receive her diploma.
“Cancer was not supposed to be here for her senior year,” said Britnee Outen, Carissa’s older sister. “But she kicked butt. She made it through.”
Not only did Carissa attend the prom and make the much-anticipated walk despite numerous cancer treatments, she also led her classmates in their final act as high school seniors – switching over their tassels.
When Steve Gering, North Central’s principal, spoke of students he cannot forget, Carissa’s story of “hope and determination” was the one that made his voice quiver with emotion.
“If I could just capture what you have in a bottle and give it to others the world would be a better place,” he said.
The entire audience at the INB Performing Arts Center was brought to their feet in a standing ovation for the teen.
Carissa was diagnosed in July 2008 with follicular lymphoma – one of 100 known cases worldwide in people younger than 19. The cells disappeared after six months of chemotherapy, and doctors told her to expect the cancer to be in remission for at least seven years.
On Feb. 19, Carissa and her family learned the cancer was back – at stage 4, the most severe.
This time, medical professionals hope to knock out the cancer with a stem-cell transplant. This week, Carissa and her mother, Gwen Ashcraft, will go to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance – a collaboration of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital – to continue treatment.
But it’s hard to tell the teen’s life is filled with worry and uncertainty, even as she spends some of her days and nights in the Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital oncology ward.
Carissa “shrugs it off like it’s nothing. To her, this is just another step we need to take,” Britnee said. One day Carissa told her, “You know, B? Sometimes I just don’t feel like I’m sick, and I don’t realize it until my hair starts falling out.”
Denise Miller, Carissa’s godmother, adds, “When you are in the presence of uncommon courage, you know it. I’ve felt that since the beginning of this journey.”
When Carissa found out her cancer had returned, keeping her hair until the prom was one of those little finish lines. She made it, but just barely.
“I wanted a messy, curly thing,” Carissa said. “I wanted an updo.”
When her hair appointment came on prom day, April 24, she was prepared with a picture of Paris Hilton sporting the hairstyle she’d planned.
“I didn’t want it because it was Paris Hilton,” she said. “It just happened to be on Paris Hilton’s head.”
That day her head of hair was full, her energy up and her prom plans on schedule, despite the previous day’s round of chemotherapy.
Generosity from the Spokane community helped make sure the teen’s prom was memorable. Her “pediatric oncology family” at Sacred Heart paid for a suite at the Davenport Hotel Tower. Anonymous donors provided limousine service and her bejeweled navy blue prom dress. The Melting Pot provided her and her friends a free dinner.
But her high school classmates had a final surprise at the dance: They voted Carissa prom queen.
“It was one of those things where you don’t care if you get it, so it’s no big deal. But it was really cool,” Carissa said. “What was even cooler was one of my really good friends was voted prom king.”
Less than two weeks later, Carissa’s hair started coming out in clumps.
“It happens fast,” she said. “That’s what happened last time, too. I could drag a brush through my hair three times and the toilet would be full of hair.”
And, like last time, the teen had her head shaved, bringing an entourage along to the hair salon for support. They cried, but Carissa reassured her supporters she was fine.
“I feel comfortable making sure everybody else is OK,” she said. “It’s hard for me to care about myself first. I think that’s how it is with everyone in my family.”