Prom and portraits aside, this senior knows what’s important

Kristi O’Harran

Kristi’s Notebook

NSeniors in high school are as busy as the Middle East press corps. Students in the 12th grade should finalize college plans, seek scholarships, pose for portraits, think about a prom date, pay for the graduation party and order announcements.

That’s all on the plate for Mariner High School senior Billy Anderson.

He doesn’t care that much about it.

Billy has learned, the very hard way, what’s the really big deal in life — living.

You wouldn’t know to look at Billy, a 6-foot-2 kid with linebacker thighs, that cancer came calling — twice. If you ever thought life wasn’t fair, talk to Billy. He’s got more gumption than the Grinch.

At age 13, Billy was at a routine sports physical when he showed the doctor little red dots on his lower legs. Then there was that lump on his neck and a few bruises. He wasn’t signed off to play baseball. Results of blood tests were so dire, Billy was told to get to Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle so quickly that maybe they should call an ambulance.

"At first, there was excitement about going to the hospital," Billy said. "There was ice cream there."

That feeling lasted one day. A diagnosis of cancer was followed by chemotherapy, shots and radiation. Nausea, pain and loneliness tried to chip away at his sunny disposition like an ax on a tree.

He missed his friends at Voyager Middle School in the Mukilteo School District.

They didn’t forget Billy. Schoolmates kept the family stocked with tuna casseroles and good thoughts.

His grandmother, Rachelle Anderson, who lives in Bothell, said her grandson went through treatments like a champ.

"The Make-A-Wish Foundation gave him a huge shopping spree which was a highlight for him," Anderson said. "Even then, there was no room for self pity. He was the eternal optimist and never, ever felt sorry for himself."

In remission for several months following his first-round battle with cancer, Billy later went to the doctor with back pains, thinking maybe he was experiencing appendicitis.

What a slap it must have been to learn his cancer was back. This time, he spent many months in the hospital and underwent a stem cell transplant.

Following the treatment, Billy was on a respirator in the intensive care unit.

His mother, Cristy Abrahamson, said many patients don’t come out of the ICU after a stem cell.

Her son did.

"I have family and friends who say how strong I am," Abrahamson said. "I’m not. You don’t have a choice. Billy is the strong one."

Billy expressed it differently.

"You don’t let it get you down," he said. "I had plans for my future. That’s important."

Future plans may find Billy back in a hospital. He is studying nursing at the Sno-Isle Skills Center in Everett. He drives a 1986 Ford F-150 to his job at Wal-Mart in Lynnwood. Most of his peers at Mariner High School aren’t aware of his medical history.

I believed everything Billy said because he had one of those faces that could melt ice in winter. If he said the school library was open at 3 a.m., and he needed to check out a book, you would pat his head and send him on his way.

There wasn’t a hint of self-pity.

"He never had anything but a smile and a reassurance that he’d beat it," his grandmother said. "Billy is a true hero in my eyes. We’re all very proud of him."

Thanks to tutors, Billy, 17, is on track at school. December will mark one year in remission. He will play on the golf team this spring.

When we talked, the big homecoming dance was coming up. Billy was thinking about going, but it didn’t seem like a big deal.

He knows what’s important on his plate.

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