Facing the odds


photo by Victoria Tomeo

On Jan. 11, Baltz plays a game of Sudoku during her last round of chemotherapy at Arnold Palmer Hospital.

Kelsey Baltz’s senior to-do list is a lot like any other: tests, essays, trips with friends, exams, prom, graduation and, hopefully, a few acceptance letters.

But when she’s not doing homework and thinking of majors, Baltz is battling stage three Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—something that was not on her to-do list four months ago.

Baltz had a normal life until this past October. She developed a cough one morning and thought, like any other cold symptom, some Tylenol and water was the best way to feel better and get through the school day. Except, a normal cough does not usually last for four weeks.

“I’ve always been one of those people who worries over small injuries or sicknesses and would start Googling things from the start,” Baltz said.

After finding a lump on the side of her throat, Baltz made an appointment with her doctor. Doctors described the lump as an “unidentifiable mass” and claimed that nothing had showed up on the ultrasound, but when she was referred to physicians at Arnold Palmer Hospital last October, they came to the conclusion on Oct. 23 after chest x-rays, biopsies, more ultrasounds and a multitude of tests: stage three Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Baltz’s first chemo-therapy treatment started on Oct. 26 and lasted for several weeks. Baltz knew the treatment would make her sick, but she did not expect she would have to miss out on so much. On a trip to Disney World, she developed Coronavirus, an acute respiratory illness, and realized her immune system was too compromised for her to go crowded places. Medicines such as Bleomycin, which is incorporated into chemo-therapy, caused mouth sores and, according to Baltz, it “looked like a bomb went off” in her mouth. Other side effects like loss of appetite and fatigue also made her unable to leave the hospital for days at a time.

No matter how sick she has been, no matter how much pain she has been in, Kelsey has never once lost her smile.”

— Susan Higley

Baltz lost her hair on Nov. 10, and Christmas was mostly spent in the hospital. A series of treatments happened after, as if someone had pressed the fast forward button.

“[The illness] was completely random,” Baltz said. “I really didn’t know how bad it was going to be after [the diagnosis].”

Cancer affects every person differently, which makes the future even more unsure. For young people between 15 and 39 with stage three Hodgkin’s, the five-year survival rate is 80 percent, while patients over 80 have only a 30 percent chance. But in those 80 percent are some that never fully recover from Hodgkin’s, even after months or years of treatment, and may have health complications after recovery.

Four months later, Baltz has just finished her last round of chemotherapy and has recently undergone radiation during the week of Feb. 1. When chemo-therapy is given in exceedingly high dosages, it lessens the chance of secondary cancer, but also puts her at a high risk of getting breast cancer, thyroid cancer and heart problems, due to the treatment’s focus on her neck, chest and abdomen.

Before her diagnosis, Baltz was in her fourth year of the Interior Design and Architecture program with teacher Susan Higley and was planning to help out more with the Interior Design Club before she was admitted to the hospital in late October. Because of the relationship built between the entire class over the course of the four years together, Higley says that Baltz’s diagnosis struck her and the entire class pretty hard.

“From the very beginning, she made the deliberate decision that this disease would take as little away from her as possible,” Higley said. “We all stayed very calm and supported Kelsey, letting her know that no matter what was to come, we would be there for her.”

Hospital life, despite the stereotypes that say it is a dark and lonely place, hasn’t been all that bad for Baltz. Various donations are frequently distributed to the rooms for patients and their families to enjoy. Tablets, care packages, books, blankets, clothes, coloring books and food from well-known restaurants, such as Olive Garden, are donated and brought to the cancer floor.

My mom, she deserves everything and has done so much. Both of my parents have. My entire family has.”

— Kelsey Baltz

Another positive has been the Make-A-Wish foundation, which provides opportunities for sick kids to experience once-in-a-lifetime situations that help the patients feel stronger and more hopeful about getting better. Past wishes have incorporated celebrities, famous cities and even concerts, but Baltz’s plan is to travel to Europe with her family. However, according to her, deciding what the wish will be is not as easy as it may seem, since it ultimately answers the question “If you had one week to live, what would you do?”

Since cancer causes immune system degradation, Baltz must stay in the hospital during treatment or if a fever goes over 100.4 degrees, which has happened four or five times since her diagnosis. However, that does not stop her from keeping up with events such as Cookies for Kelsey and Kisses for Kelsey.

“You hear about people who have made signs and people who have bought the cookies and it just makes you feel so appreciative,” mother Melissa Baltz said.

Over $1,500 has been raised from donations and more events are being planned to raise money and bring awareness for Baltz.

Since the cancer has embedded itself into Baltz’s life, the lives around her have also been deeply affected. Junior Caitlyn Patel, Baltz’s cousin, visits her every day that she is undergoing treatment. Baltz’s mother takes off work most days and stays with her while she is in the hospital as well. Baltz’s family and friends come and see her as often as they can and, according to her, the support helps tremendously.

“I couldn’t have imagined how much support I would get,” Baltz said. “It really helps if I feel awful and people are telling me, ‘You can push through this, Kelsey!’”