Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Teenagers fight cancer with true grit, smiles

Camp Rainbow Gold helps victims forget illnesses

Express Staff Writer

Tiffani Thiessen and Sarah Adicoff, with camp supporters Kris and Rob Cronin, from left to right, take a short break during a hectic visitors? day at Camp Rainbow Gold. Photo by Chris Pilaro

Not a speck of blonde hair was visible on Sarah Adicoff's head or face. Huge, trendy sunglasses covered most of her face. An incoming senior at The Community School, Adicoff, 16, is one of only a handful of Wood River Valley residents who attended the American Cancer Society's Camp Rainbow Gold this year. The free camp for children diagnosed with cancer is based 11 miles north of Ketchum.

People walked by her and waved as she talked quietly. Someone offered her juice. Another volunteer said she'd come back for her when she was done talking. Her parents milled about somewhere in the throng of families and friends.

Adicoff was still adjusting, since this was her first year at the camp. In November 2005, she was diagnosed with sinus rhabdomyosarcoma.

One of those walking by had a walkie-talkie on her belt and a leather nametag around her neck that read "Tiff." She was stylishly thin with a brilliant actress-perfect smile. Up from Los Angeles, actress Tiffani Thiessen wasn't playing at being a celebrity but in fact was there as a volunteer. She stopped on her way to the entertainment tent to hug Adicoff.

"This is so life changing," Thiessen said. "They are such lovely people here. They show me a sense of strength you never see in that form. Sarah is only 16, and she is fighting the toughest thing in her life."

Adicoff found a few other things tough, too. On her first day at camp, blood tests revealed low platelets. She was able to go to St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum to receive treatment before returning a day later.

"I didn't feel bad, but my nose was bleeding uncontrollably. It happens," she said. On Tuesday, during a carnival at the camp, she went part way up a climbing wall, and she went through a blow-up obstacle course. Then she played tennis at the Sun Valley Nike Tennis Camp.

"I surprised myself. I don't have that much strength," she said. "We taped a music video, got facials and our nails done. It's been so wonderful and so much fun. Everyone makes you feel so special. You realize how much people love you. So much has been donated. It's good to be with other kids who get it, who know what you're going through. This has definitely made me realize cancer doesn't pick people based on what you've done or accomplished. You don't have a choice. You get diagnosed, and you just fight it."

Adicoff's last treatment is this week, and she fully intends on being at The Community School in Sun Valley for the first day of her senior year.

While Adicoff's hair hasn't yet reappeared, Stacie Tornga 17, of Boise, was surprised when hers began coming in curly, since once it was straight down her back.

"This is what I look forward to all year long," Tornga said. And for a week each of the last five summers, Camp Rainbow Gold is where she could be found. A 2006 graduate of Boise High School, Tornga, who suffers from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was selling "Wish" tee shirts to visitors at Camp Rainbow Gold during VIP day, Wednesday, Aug. 9.

Her pixyish hairstyle gave her away as a survivor. Diagnosed when she was in seventh grade, Tornga had a relapse a few years ago and is still going through chemotherapy. Now a junior counselor, she said she is planning on volunteering next year before going to college, most likely for the American Cancer Society.

"I'm on a lower dose of chemo weekly. Sometime it will change," she said.

Tornga is typical of the campers. She has a positive attitude, loves working with the little kids and is thrilled to be with her friends. Her favorite task is helping out with the music, since she was a singer in the school choir and at church.

"I love the people. You can do these things anywhere but the people are really cool," she said. "Everyone's been through so much. The little kids just run around, and you get randomly hit in the face with water or paper airplanes."

Because her platelets were also low the day after she arrived, Tornga returned to Boise and then hitched a ride back with some nurses after receiving treatment. Fortunately, the camp has full-time doctors and nurses who work out of a medic cabin. Tornga felt lucky to be able to be able to receive her daily treatments of antibiotics right there.

She pondered the idea of being a teenager with cancer.

"I don't know what a ... I feel normal. It's only the physical aspects. Steroids make you puffy." She has a boyfriend, sort of. He just moved to Denver for college, so she's dealing with that.

"I want to go to California to college," she said. "Where it's warm." And she giggled like any teenager and momentarily looked like a young, radiant Audrey Hepburn.

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