Growing up can be tough. You worry about your future, learn difficult lessons and try to fit in.
For teens fighting cancer, all of that is amplified.
When Mary Kate Andrepont was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma as a freshman in high school in the Louisiana town of Watson, she struggled to simultaneously battle the disease, study from a hospital room and feel like a normal teen.
Now in remission and thriving as a freshman at Loyola University in New Orleans, Andrepont, 19, wants to help teens living with cancer to feel a little bit normal.
“Give them confidence back,” Andrepont said. “So often it can be draining.”
Last year, Andrepont started a nonprofit organization, Cancer Couture, that aims to help teenagers regain their confidence in a difficult time.
After her junior year in high school, Andrepont was chosen as an ANNpower fellow, a program created by the parent company of the Ann Taylor and LOFT clothing companies and Vital Voices, an organization focused on training women as leaders.
She used $2,500 in grant money from the fellowship to start Cancer Couture and provide fashionable hats to teens who undergo chemotherapy treatments, a need she discovered when losing her hair. The tips she received through pamphlets and instructional videos suggested she wear wigs, turbans or baseball caps. Turbans, unfashionable among her age group, would cause her to stand out. Wigs never looked realistic on her, and good ones were expensive. And baseball caps featured a cut-out in the back, showing her bald head.
Finding fashionable caps wasn’t always easy. “It would be hit or miss,” said her mother, Mary Andrepont. “One time I found one at a grocery store.”
Andrepont wants to find new ways to help teens with cancer, an age group she says is often overlooked.
“They never show teenagers to the extent they show little children,” she said. “It’s sad because there are teenagers going through this. ... They are more aware. They know what they’re going through. They understand what society says it is and they understand it medically. So often we just omit the teenager from cancer in general and just forget.”
In high school, when Andrepont was running bleachers to prepare for cheerleading, she knew something was wrong.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said, “and I was so upset that I couldn’t do it.”
At Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, doctors took a lung biopsy, and the Andrepont family waited weeks for the results. Rare among children, her illness was difficult to diagnose. Experts at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, confirmed the diagnosis of lymphomatoid granulomatosis, and offered to see Andrepont at the National Cancer Institute, where she would receive the latest treatments.
Andrepont was treated throughout her freshman year and stayed current with school, which was important to her. At Thanksgiving her sophomore year, doctors at the NIH said she would need a bone marrow transplant and should quit school, something she fought hard not to do. It was one of the only “normal” teenage experiences she was having.
“It’s all so stressful that you’re isolating me,” she said. “I’m not like everyone else.”
Andrepont became a home-bound student while taking chemotherapy. After the bone marrow transplant, she had to remain in the hospital for 30 days while her immune system rebuilt itself, and stay in Bethesda near the hospital for 100 days. She kept her straight-A average — and she fought with a lot of doctors and nurses.
“She learned to be feisty and advocate for herself,” said Mary Andrepont. “She learned she had to stand up for herself.”
Over time at the Cancer Institute she formed a bond with many other teens fighting cancer. Some lived, while others passed away. But it changed her life, and Andrepont knew she wanted to do something for teens with the disease.
So far, Andrepont has received two grants from ANNpower for Cancer Couture. She traveled to Bethesda last year to distribute hats, and she has started collecting for a second round.
Pediatric and teenage cancers don’t get enough attention, Andrepont said, and she wants to raise awareness for the issue. “I want to bring to light the social consequences of cancer in teens and young adults,” she said.