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OREM — Being a teenager comes with a specific set of challenges: fitting in, peer pressure, even convincing parents you know more than them. But a 17-year-old by the name of Rachel Stratton has one more on the list, and it trumps a lot of other problems out there.
Six months ago, the Orem teenager was diagnosed with brain cancer — more specifically, a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). With that diagnosis came the life-threatening statistics: 90 percent of patients die within 18 months, and 97 percent die within three years.
Because tumor is located on her brain stem, surgery was not an option.
Rachel, however, doesn't give up easily. In fact, her cancer has spurred a new mantra for her to live by: "I can do hard things."
A dismal diagnosis
Rachel's diagnosis came in the summer of 2012. She was a state champion track athlete at Orem High School and began feeling differently during her runs.
"It was a dizzy (feeling), like your whole world is spinning around," she said.
- Less than 10% of DIPG children will live longer than 18 months from diagnosis. Survival is even more rare.
- DIPG is one of the most resistant of all cancers to chemotherapy treatments;
- DIPG accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all childhood central nervous system tumors.
- The median age at diagnosis is 5 to 9 years old but they can occur at any age in childhood.
Her mother, Diane Stratton, noticed the symptoms as well.
"She was sleeping probably a minimum of 16 hours a day," Diane said, "and she was having numbness in the lip area and around the mouth."
Those symptoms became the first sign of the cancerous tumor growing on Rachel's brain stem. She just didn't know it, but the doctors soon found it and broke the news.
"(Her doctor) had a hard time telling us," Diane said. "He was almost choked up and said, ‘I don't want to have to tell anybody this.'"
It was bad news, and it got worse. The tumor, doctors said, could not be surgically removed. In essence, Rachel was given a death sentence.
"There's just moments when you sit down and break down and sob. Nobody wants to face this," Diane said.
"I wish it was me," said Lauren Stratton, Rachel's older sister. "That's all I've thought is I wish it was me, and that she didn't have to deal with it."
Rachel's big idea
On the day of Rachel's diagnosis, mortality became very real for the Stratton family; and with that reality came a list of questions. Her family had questions, her friends had questions, her neighbors had questions; in fact, just about everyone who knew Rachel had questions.
But the toughest question to answer, Rachel said, was: "How are you doing?"
"It's just hard for me to explain over and over and over again," she said. "This is not my whole life. This is just something that happened to me."
People meant well, and Rachel knew that, but talking about cancer in every single conversation was emotionally killing her. That's when the idea hit her to tell everyone what's going on in one single shot: she started a blog.
"Emotionally, I have never dealt with anything this hard in my life," she said.
Her blog, www.prayersforrachel.com, has no bells, no whistles, just straight talk about her cancer, the treatments and her challenges.
Pictures are posted there, stories are shared, and what Rachel soon found out was her audience is not just in Utah County; they're global.
I think she is a hero. When I look and see her photos, she is in pain yet she smiles. I see her as an example to all of us, not because of her sickness, but by the way she has chosen to deal with it.
–Lilia Konich, www.prayersforrachel.com reader from Germany
From across the country and around the world — at least half a dozen states and 13 countries — total strangers were inspired by the words of this teenage girl from Orem — sharing her small victories and drawing strength from the setbacks.
Lilia Konich from Germany posted: "My problems are nothing compared to Rachel's … They're nothing."
Florida native Julie Hadick also drew inspiration from Rachel, writing, "Even when she's not positive, she's just real. She's just being real and honest."
In a matter of months, Rachel's blog has had about a 250,000 views. What was designed to be a shield from the outside world has opened her life to a message board of "unknowns" offering up their gratitude and making it clear Rachel will not go through this alone.
In speaking of Rachel's motto, a woman named Hadick wrote, "I can do hard things. It kind of taught me I can do ‘not' hard things and just stop complaining so much."
Konich added: "I think she is a hero. When I look and see her photos, she is in pain yet she smiles. I see her as an example to all of us, not because of her sickness, but by the way she has chosen to deal with it."
Who would have thought one girl, five words and a blog would have such an effect on the world?
Continuing the fight
Last summer Rachel was given about nine months to live, but in her 17 years of life she has never been one to run away from a fight. This time is no different.
True, the stakes are much higher. True, the odds are not in her favor. But if there's one thing you should never forget about Rachel Stratton, it's this: she can do hard things.
"Nothing good is going to come if you have a bad attitude." Rachel said. "Just say you're going to beat it until you do."
Rachel's posts have slowed down a bit over the past few weeks, mainly because not a lot has changed. But her last post reads: "My tumor has shrunk … thanks to those of you who are praying for me. So, thank you so much, you've really convinced God to be on my side. Feel free to continue!"
If you'd like, you can follow Rachel's story at www.prayersforrachel.com.