Making plans for university and picking out a graduation dress are typical activities for teenage girls in Grade 12, but Allegra Friesen Epp had something extra to contend with as she did those things last year: battling cancer.
In September 2013, just as her final year in high school began, the Winnipeg teenager was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lym-
phoma, a form of cancer that originates by attacking cells in the body’s immune system. While her peers at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate were studying math and trying out for the volleyball team, Friesen Epp was receiving chemotherapy treatments to battle the disease.
“It certainly was not the Grade 12 year I had envisioned,” Friesen Epp says. “I’d always thought of cancer as something seniors get. It’s one of those things where you never think it’s going to be you until it is you.”
But in the past year-and-a-half, Friesen Epp’s diagnosis has led to the trip of a lifetime and, perhaps more importantly, it taught her something about her faith.
Friesen Epp had been experiencing various symptoms for six months before receiving her diagnosis after a round of blood tests. The cancer was in Stage IV—the most severe stage—when doctors diagnosed her.
Doctors quickly advised her and her parents, Arlyn and Judith, on a treatment plan and gave them a hopeful prognosis. She began six months of chemotherapy immediately, followed by two weeks of radiation treatment.
Friesen Epp’s chemotherapy was in the mornings and she would go to school afterward. She had always been strong academically, earning straight As, so there was never any doubt that she would graduate on time. Anti-nausea medication also meant that she seldom felt physically ill as a result of her treatments.
“Chemo was more an emotional and mental challenge for me,” she says. “My way of coping was to stress more about schoolwork and deadlines. The worries about my illness manifested themselves in anxieties about essay-writing and things like that.”
It was a difficult time for her family, including her younger brothers, Bryn and Caleb. The disease led her to question God. “I was just feeling like my time’s not nearly up yet,” she says. “It felt kind of cruel.”
Early on in Friesen Epp’s treatment, a nurse told her about the Dream Factory, a Winnipeg-based organization that grants the wishes of young people battling life-threatening illnesses. Friesen Epp asked for a trip to Tanzania so that she and her family could go on a safari.
Last June, just after she graduated from high school and shortly before her 18th birthday, Friesen Epp and her family flew to the East African country.
She had connected with Darryl and Shirley Peters, a Mennonite couple from Winnipeg who now operate a lodge in Arusha, a city in northern Tanzania close to the Serengeti. They helped Friesen Epp and her family organize the trip, which included a safari that took them through three different national parks, spending a few days on the coast of the Indian Ocean and touring local villages where the family got to interact with Tanzanians.
Along with seeing a variety of exotic animals during the safari, Friesen Epp says sharing a meal with a local family in its modest hut stands out as a highlight from the trip.
The two families made the meal together, ate together and then prayed together. “That was a remarkable, extraordinary experience,” she says.
Today, doctors are pleased with how Friesen Epp is progressing with her health. She is currently working and making plans to attend university in the fall.
She says she appreciated the trip to Tanzania because it allowed her family to grow even closer, as well as celebrate the completion of her treatment “It was wonderful to be able to do it together and create these memories that we’re going to have for a long time,” she says.
She adds that she is still processing how her experience with cancer has shaped her. “I have no doubt that God was present in my journey,” she says, adding that she felt God’s presence through the support she received from family, friends and members of her church community.
She also felt God’s presence through the care she received from doctors and nurses. “I think I’ve experienced first-hand how suffering is an opportunity for human beings to ultimately show that they love and care for each other,” she says, reflecting on her time in the hospital. “God was there.”
Although she was diagnosed with cancer at the start of her Grade 12 year, Allegra Friesen Epp graduated on time last June.
Allegra Friesen Epp, centre, stands with her brothers Bryn and Caleb in the Indian Ocean last summer.
The Dream Factory, an organization that grants the wishes of young people battling life-threatening illnesses, made it possible for Allegra Friesen Epp and her family to travel to Tanzania last summer.
While in Tanzania, Allegra Friesen Epp and her family shared a meal with a local family. It was one of the biggest highlights of the trip.
The Friesen Epp family stand with Darryl and Shirley Peters, a couple from Winnipeg who now live in Tanzania and helped them organize their trip.