Sarah was planning to visit the Grand Canyon during spring break of her junior year when she realized something was wrong. She had been having regular back pain, but in March 2014, it grew worse.
“I thought the pain was from playing volleyball,” said Sarah, who went to the doctor for x-rays when it became hard for her to breathe. “Doctors ran tests all night long and when they found legions in my lungs, I was admitted to Diamond Children’s Hospital with Stage IV cancer.”
“In that moment, I think I was in shock because that was not what I expected to hear at all,” she said. “But I was determined to fight because I know there are so many things left in life for me to do.”
Diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, an extremely rare form of kidney cancer for anyone over the age of 5, Sarah was in and out of the hospital for months with an aggressive chemotherapy and radiation plan.
“The hospital became my second home since I pretty much lived there,” said Sarah. “The hardest part was being treated differently because I had cancer. I didn’t want people to see me at my worst and I stopped talking to a lot of friends because I didn’t want them to see how bad it really was.”
And even for someone as positive and strong as Sarah, it was often an uphill battle. Many times when she would start to feel better, another challenge would present itself.
“When I left the hospital to go to my school prom, I caught a virus and became really sick. I had just turned 18 and in that moment I started thinking about the decisions I would have to be responsible for if my condition got worse. A good friend of mine passed away from something similar so it was all too real for me to imagine.”
“I saw how my body wasn’t responding to treatments, and for the first time in my life, I had given up hope,” she said. “But my oncologist, Dr. Kopp, knew exactly what to say to make me want to fight. And then, I found out my social worker had referred me for a wish.”
When Sarah’s wish granters visited her in the hospital, they told her she could wish for anything in the world.
“It was exactly what I needed,” said Sarah. “They told me to dream big – a thought that had never even crossed my mind. I never realized I could have an opportunity like this in the middle of everything I was dealing with, and that’s when I started thinking.”
Sarah wished to go on an once-in-a-lifetime trip inspired by one of her favorite childhood movies.
“Whenever I talked about Italy, I got this good feeling, like it was where I was supposed to be. I saw The Lizzie McGuire Movie a long time ago and ever since then, I’ve always wanted to visit Italy!” she said with a laugh. “I loved how they rode around in scooters and I hoped to experience everything just like they did in the movie, so a big part of my wish was being able to tour Italy’s landmarks and experience its culture on a Vespa.”
Looking forward to her wish trip, Sarah’s life started to turn around.
“I was devastated I wouldn’t be able to graduate from high school with my friends, so more than 50 of my classmates came to the ICU with caps, gowns and my diploma so I could have a special ceremony. It was kind of cool that I was able to graduate before anyone in my class and, later that night, I shared an inspiring message over Facetime during the school’s ceremony.”
And Sarah’s friends weren’t the only people to bring her good news. Sarah’s wish granters often came to see her and share updates or itineraries leading up to her trip.
“They would tell me all the things I was going to do in Italy while I was there,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to see everything I had dreamed about - the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, and the Colosseum!”
When Sarah boarded the plane with her mom, dad and sister Jennifer to Rome, they were so excited to finally experience Italy and all its charm.
“I’m not a planner and I wanted to just explore the city on my own, so it was really fun to have free time to do everything I wanted,” she said. “Seeing Rome for the first time and actually being there was unbelievable – and the pasta was amazing!”
After visiting Rome, Sarah and her family traveled to other Italian cities, like Tuscany, Florence and Sorrento.
“Everything was so close and convenient, just a hop on and off the train from city to city,” she said. “It was really cool being able to see all the different places, they were so unique and it was like being in an entirely new country each time.”
“I loved Sorrento because it was right on the Tyrrhenian Sea, so the seafood was awesome,” she said. “Then, in Tuscany, we rode up the countryside in our Vespa’s and visited a winery inside an old historic castle. At the end of the day, we had a big meal in a family room and I got to open a bottle of wine with a sword!”
Now that Sarah has returned from her wish, she has experienced more health challenges, but is determined to continue fighting.
“I was in remission for a little over a year when I found out there was a mass in my other lung, and needed more surgery,” she said. "I continued to have the strength to fight. Now, my scans are coming back negative and everything is great. I may never have the normal life I used to know but I am so grateful I was able to experience my wish, at the perfect time I really needed it.”
Sarah is now a Pre-Professional Nursing major at the University of Arizona, where she will be a sophomore this fall.
“Nursing is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life, but everything I’ve been through solidified my decision and now I feel like I can connect with patients even more,” she said. “All the people in the hospital did so much for me – they referred me for a wish and they saved my life. I love school and learning and I’m looking forward to helping other people like me."
As far as her role on campus, Sarah tells her story to anyone she can. She is trying to get back into playing sports again and she was dedicated a honorary captain with the UA volleyball team.
“Everyone on and off campus is so nice and I’ve noticed my story has opened so many people’s eyes,” she said. “My wish meant a lot more to me than just a vacation – I felt like I was free. Italy is somewhere I’ve always dreamed of visiting but never had the chance to go without my wish, and being able to bring my family with me made the experience that much more amazing. I am so grateful for this entire experience.”