When describing what leukemia is and what it does to her body, Serena Bonneville sounds as though she is reciting the plot from a favourite television show.
There’s mutation, rogue blood cells and a hell of a lot of fighting.
In the South Surrey teenager’s blog – chronicling the days following her diagnosis on Oct. 10 of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) – she writes that she pictures the type of cells that have taken over her body as “mindless zombies like from The Walking Dead.”
“Their sole purpose is to kill and infect the living as they senselessly wander about unaware that their fate is threatened by the strength of courageous fighters,” she writes Oct. 16. “I, like Rick Grimes, intend on wiping out each and every walker that dared to threaten the human spirit.”
The 16-year-old may not look like the small-town sheriff/main protagonist from the hit AMC show but – like Grimes – she’s every inch the fighter.
Sitting in her home, where she has been resting after four full days of steroid treatment, Bonneville recalls when symptoms first began.
After a bout of walking pneumonia, followed by the removal of all four of her wisdom teeth, the avid soccer and field hockey player expected a bit of a hit to her fitness.
But while walking up the stairs at Southridge, the high school senior became winded.
“I was getting out of breath and I thought, ‘OK, this is not right’,” she said.
Days later, she became winded going up the stairs in her home, followed by pain in her bones and night sweats.
“After that, we decided to take her to the doctor,” her father, James, told Peace Arch News Thursday. “They took an X-ray and did the blood work. The next day, I got a call at work.”
The family was advised to take Serena to the BC Children’s Hospital, where it was confirmed she had leukemia.
“When they first said it was leukemia for sure, I didn’t even know what leukemia was. I wrote in my blog that the first thing that came into mind was the movie, A Walk to Remember, and then the girl dies in it,” she said.
The next day, following a lumbar puncture and bone-marrow testing, she was told the specific type; ALL is the most common leukemia for children.
“(The oncologist) said of all the types of leukemia to get at my age, this is the best. It was a big relief,” she said.
While the diagnosis provided some respite, like all cancers it requires treatment. In Serena’s case, that means six to eight months of intense chemotherapy, followed by two years of maintenance.
Because of the timeline of her “roadmap to recovery,” Serena expects to miss many days of school during her grad year – a devastating blow.
“The moment when I lost it was when she said that most people do graduate, but it is tough. They usually are home-schooled. When she said that I won’t be going to school regularly, I just lost it,” she said. “School is my life. It’s not just school for me. I’m there from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., whether it’s soccer, student council meetings – it’s a really big part of my life.”
After what her dad describes as “10 seconds of losing it,” Serena regained composure, grabbed her computer and began to blog.
Her first entry on www.breedingoptimism.blogspot.ca began on the day she was diagnosed, and has since included posts on chemotherapy, steroids and medication, as well as how she maintains her positive outlook.
Appropriately titled A Change in Perspective, the blog’s tagline, Breeding Optimism, is exactly what Serena plans to do.
“I thought, when people first hear (about the leukemia), it’s going to be pretty tough and they’re probably going to expect the worst. It’s leukemia, it’s a blood cancer, and I just thought they need to know it’s the best type of cancer I could have gotten,” she said. “And I’m going into it with a positive attitude.
“I wanted for the most part for people to feel comfortable. I didn’t want there to be a negative atmosphere. I did it with the intention of making other people feel comfortable but also to create a more positive atmosphere so when I do hit my low points, I do know that I have created a more positive atmosphere for myself and other people.”
Since her first post, thousands have logged on to read about Serena’s thoughts, her food cravings – including Chipotle and White Spot – and her road to recovery.
While the sheer number of people who have reached out has been overwhelming and unexpected, Serena said it has also brought her comfort.
“I’ve received so many stories from people going through similar things, like Southridge alumni, which is so cool, and parents who have gone through similar things. People connect with you and you learn more about other people than I would have ever known before. It gives me hope too, you know, they tell me these positive stories and that really helps,” she said.
Friends and family have also rallied to provide financial support, donating in Serena’s name towards research for cancer, which, she noted, is of utmost importance.
“I don’t think people realize that they are not just raising the money to show their support for me, but they’re raising money because it actually makes a big difference – specifically, I thought, for teenagers and kids who are going through it,” she said. “Just the fact that I don’t have to be in the hospital for the majority of my chemo makes it so much better, it’s amazing. It’s a big difference for me and my studies and social life. It’s money for research that does all that. If I can do anything to make it easier for other people that go through it too, I’ll be all over it for sure.”