Monday, December 16, 2002


In cancer's shadow, she inspires others

On this particular morning in the Hinton home, the coffee table Bible is opened to the Book of Job.

It tells a story of righteous suffering.

Job was a man who did all the right things, yet faced enormous trials. And through it all, he never cursed God.

For more than a third of her life, Christina Hinton has battled cancer. Just a few weeks ago, doctors said she might not have to fight much longer.

For some, the prognosis would be the final chapter.

For Christina, 17, it is just another obstacle to conquer in a life that "won't end because the doctor said it will, but only if God says it will."

On this morning Christina is a ball of nervous energy. Dressed in a gray jogging suit, she makes it a point to check her online horoscope, hoping for some guidance on a day that she, family and friends have planned for some time.

Today, accomplishment replaces challenge.

Today, Christina graduates.

The reflection of her cocoa-cherub face glows from the computer screen as she clicks to a horoscope Web site.

"I think I'm going to need some direction today," she says with a smile.

Her smile is what people mention when they speak of Christina, but her determination is what inspires them.

Through bouts with an illness that would have mentally and physically crippled some, the teen completed her junior and senior years of high school at home and earned honor-roll grades.

It's the reason Varina High School teachers and administrators came together to give Christina her own graduation ceremony six months earlier than the regular commencement.

"At least I can say I have my diploma," she said. "Whether I go to college is one thing, but at least I can say I have it."

Varina teacher Lisa Roarty worked closely with the Hinton family and Carmen Nash, Christina's teacher.

"She's sort of like a superwoman," Roarty said. "She can't lift boulders, but she's managed to lift everyone's spirit throughout this whole ordeal and everything she has gone through."

Illness entered the Hinton family seven years ago when Christina, then 10, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in a gland in her neck. Doctors removed the tumor and she went on with her life. Then, two years ago, she felt a knot in her leg while in the shower.

"I didn't really want to make a big deal out of it." she said. "I thought maybe it would go away."

But it didn't.

On Dec. 14, 2000, Christina went in for a biopsy.

A few days before New Year's Eve, doctors informed Edna Hinton that her daughter had an aggressive form of cancer found most commonly in children. Called rhabdomyosarcoma, it can occur anywhere in the body. Often its symptoms don't become apparent until it's too late.

"I think most parents are just kind of bewildered when something like this happens," Hinton said. "But of course at this time, I still wasn't really understanding how serious it was."

The following year would be a whirlwind of changes for the high schooler and her family. Hinton, a single mother with another daughter and two foster children, stayed by Christina's side while maintaining her job as a licensed clinical social worker.

Christina began aggressive medical treatments - including a 16-month round of chemotherapy followed by radiation. She lost her hair and 100 pounds. But what she gained is most prominent in her mind.

"I realized none of us are promised tomorrow," she said. "I just look at the good things in life."

Some of those good things include a trip to the Bahamas for her 16th birthday, the lunches at Red Lobster that her mom treated her to during her chemotherapy and - most importantly - the bond that has developed between mother and daughter.

"So many times parents take their children for granted. I don't." Hinton said. "This is my best friend. I'm so grateful for the time we've had to hang out, shop and have a good time."

The two developed the habit of watching soap operas during Christina's long doctor visits.

On this day, Christina watches an episode of "The Young and the Restless" while waiting for her mom to return from the beauty salon.

It's a chance for the teen to rest from the beginning of an exhausting day. The phone rings constantly with calls from relatives coming to town for the graduation. Between calls, Christina rehearses the speech she plans to give.

Next stop: the nail salon. Christina gets a dainty French manicure, and her freshly coifed mom gets to rest.

"You're happy, you're thinking this is a milestone," Hinton said, reflecting on Christina's graduation day amid nail drills buzzing and the intoxicating smell of acrylic. "But you're also thinking, 'OK, what's after this?'"

The Hintons have become experts at riding the roller coaster that is cancer.

In April of 2001, about four months after her diagnosis of rhabdomyosarcoma, Christina became resistant to treatment and developed a new tumor. By August, the cancer had spread, and doctors told her there was a 25 percent chance for recovery.

Exceeding doctors' expectations, Christina's cancer went into remission by November 2001. She continued chemotherapy until June and returned to school in September.

But in early November, she began complaining of an aching hand. She was stumbling and getting severe headaches.

"I wanted it to be something Tylenol could cure," she said.

But it wasn't.

A few weeks ago, the news came that the cancer had spread to her brain.

"When we found out I asked her, 'Don't you want to scream or hit something?'" Hinton said.

Beyond the occasional retreat to her bedroom for a good cry, Christina said she's made a promise to deal with the diagnosis courageously.

"This is reality," Christina said. "This is what I have to deal with, so why cry? That's not going to make it go away."

Instead, she is noticing things she once overlooked.

The warmth of the sun on her face.

The taste of chocolate.

A flirtatious glance at the mall.

But today the big things take precedent.

With a few hours to spare before her commencement begins, Christina and her mom hurry through Kmart on the hunt for pantyhose and the perfect shade of lipstick.

"As long as I don't get brown lipstick she'll be happy," Christina says.

Hinton snaps back jovially, "You're supposed to wear something that pops out like 'Wow!'"

After a few more errands, mother and daughter are back home getting dressed for the occasion. Christina glides around the house in a white satin dress and jacket greeting aunts and uncles from out of town. Hinton appears from the bedroom in a royal blue suit with black sequins. Today Christina says she feels as good as she looks.

Mom and daughter hang close, right up until the moment Christina walks onto the stage to receive her diploma.

With diploma in hand, she has fulfilled two goals. One for herself, another for her mom.

"I want her to feel comfortable knowing that she's done what she's had to do as a mother," Christina said. "I want her to know life hasn't cheated me in any way, shape or form.

"Because it hasn't."

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