WILMINGTON — The cancer treatments have ended for Pearce Quesenberry, but the 14-year-old Padua Academy freshman has no plans to stop raising awareness and money to fight the disease in children.
Nearly four years ago, Quesenberry was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a brain tumor, and the cancer spread to the spinal fluid. She spent most of 2008 in treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and eventually regained her health and energy.
Now, as part of the work of the Pearce Q Foundation, Quesenberry hopes to spread holiday cheer to families going through what hers endured.
The foundation has adopted four families for Christmas, with a total of eight children, Quesenberry said last week. Two of the families have a child being treated at CHOP, and the other two are at A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. This is the second year the foundation has adopted families; last year, it bought for two.
“All the kids have at least one sibling that has cancer, but we still get gifts for the rest of the siblings,” she said. “We normally get the parents a gas card or a food card, and sometimes we get them a store card so they can buy gifts of their own because they like to do that. It’s Christmas time.”
The foundation grew out of an effort by friends to raise money for her family while Quesenberry was at CHOP. Her parents, Andrew and Debbie, left their jobs to stay with her.
“When I finished treatment at the end of October (2008), I was seeing other kids and meeting kids who didn’t have the help we had. I was like, we can’t stop this [raising money to help families with sick children]. There are other people who are struggling as much as I did and they need the help, too. Now we help other families like we were helped,” she said.
Dr. Peter Phillips, Quesenberry’s oncologist at CHOP, said the foundation has helped the hospital primarily in three areas: raising awareness, social support for patients and their families, and financial assistance for research.
“They have done a magnificent job with respect to organizing and focusing information about childhood brain tumors. Their work has meant a tremendous amount to us,” Phillips said.
The family also received support from their parish, Holy Angels in Newark. Quesenberry said the church sponsored a pancake breakfast and spaghetti dinner, and the athletic association held a volleyball tournament. She played volleyball for the Angels before being diagnosed.
She said her diagnosis and treatment had a profound affect on her faith.
“I started talking to God and praying a lot more when I got sick,” she said. “At first I was mad at God for giving me cancer, but throughout my treatment I learned to accept God’s will and was no longer angry.
“I felt that God gave me cancer because he knew I was strong enough to handle it and I could go on and help as well as inspire other people. Also, whenever I was scared about a procedure or test I would pray. My faith is definitely a lot stronger now,” she said.
A ‘chance to be myself’
Quesenberry attended middle school at Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington and could have stayed for high school. She said she loved the school but was looking for a fresh start. She wasn’t sure about an all-girls school, but talking to friends and spending a day at Padua as an eighth-grader convinced her to apply.
“I came into (Cab Calloway) with a feeding tube and I was, like, completely bald. Everyone knew me as the kid with cancer.
“Here, I like how we have the Pearce Q Foundation, everybody’s supported that, but I had a chance to be myself. People don’t know me as the kid with cancer, they know me as Pearce, and that’s what I like a lot,” she said.
The foundation has found a willing partner at Padua. The volleyball teams wore Padua t-shirts bearing one of the foundation’s slogans – “Winning is everything … when you’re fighting cancer” – to all of its matches. But the support was not limited to the athletic program.
“The school has been very supportive in general. The entire school bought t-shirts, and everyone wore their t-shirts on the same day,” said Ann Slater Lewandowski, the school’s director of communication and alumnae affairs.
Quesenberry takes a communication class at Padua and thinks that might be what she wants to do. She is also part of the school’s Jefferson Awards action team, which is dedicated to community service. She certainly has experience with that. She visits schools to speak to students about childhood cancer, and she has spent time talking to children at CHOP.
“I just talk to them because being in the hospital that long is really boring. And since I’m kind of like a veteran, I know the little fun things you can do. I have talked to a couple kids and given them ideas of what they can do or shown them new crafts or activities,” she said.
Phillips said he looks at Quesenberry as “kind of being a role model for (patients) to say, I got through this and you can, too.”
Her parents have become advocates for other parents going through the same experiences, she said, giving emotional support and advice.
Quesenberry, who lives in Marshallton with her parents and 17-year-old brother, Asa, said she has no physical restrictions and is “pretty much back to normal. I still have my days when I’m completely wiped out or have headaches or something, but other than that I can do anything really.”
That includes field hockey, which she took up this season at Padua. She was a goalkeeper on the junior varsity.
She is in a stage called “no evidence of disease,” which is essentially the same as remission.
‘This is my life’
Quesenberry’s battle with cancer made her a familiar face on television. She appeared on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, on local TV news, on two Stand Up 2 Cancer (SU2C) fundraisers, and in a commercial for SU2C filmed at Yankee Stadium during the 2009 World Series.
She would trade the notoriety, however, for a healthy childhood.
“Sometimes, a couple of people have said to me, ‘You’re so lucky, you got to do all this stuff,’ and I was like, uh, no. We could trade lives completely. I would love to not do any of this and go back to being a regular, healthy kid. But I’ve kind of accepted it now; this is my life. I don’t dwell on it. I just kind of move on,” she said.
While there were no positives to being sick, some good has come of it.
“I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people who write to the foundation saying I’ve inspired them. That’s really nice. It makes you feel good.”
For more information about the Pearce Q Foundation’s adoption of four families for Christmas or other events or activities, visit the foundation on Facebook or online at www.pearceqfoundation.org.