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In the long run, Falsey's hope wins out
By Michael Eaken | Daily Herald Correspondent

Schaumburg cross country runner and leukemia survivor Colette Falsey poses for a photo with her family - mom Julie with siblings Erin (11), Meghan (14), Tim (23), Kevin (20) and Mike (24).

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 1/3/2009 11:47 PM

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"If children have the ability to ignore odds and percentages, then maybe we can learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but hope? We have two options medically and emotionally: give up or fight like hell." - Lance Armstrong in "It's Not About the Bike; My Journey Back to Life"

Schaumburg sophomore Colette Falsey knows a little bit about this statement.

Falsey was diagnosed with leukemia in fifth grade and started a remarkable journey that continued with a ninthplace finish at this season's IHSA girls cross country Class 3A state meet in Peoria.

"It's 100 percent true," said Falsey, who at 5-foot-5 doesn't quite fit the typical warrior mode. "There is not one kid that is diagnosed with cancer who is going to give up - no one wants to die."

The clouds hanging over Detweiller Park in Peoria on Nov. 8 looked threatening. Winter seemed to be making an early appearance at the IHSA girls cross country state meet with temperatures hovering in the mid 30s.

But that didn't seem to bother Falsey.

With more than 210 runners straddling the starting line of the biggest race of the season, no one would fault an individual, especially one experiencing her first state meet, for getting a bit nervous.

But Falsey seemed oblivious to the pressure.

Disaster loomed 400 meters into the race when a spill by one of the runners in the tightly packed group had the potential to wipe out the trailing runners.

But once again Falsey calmly sidestepped the jam, continuing on her way to an impressive ninth-place finish at the state meet in a time of 17:24.

Falsey became the 15th Schaumburg girl to attain all-state honors and the first since Laura Pearson finished sixth in 2002

But looking adversity in the eye and calmly dealing with it is nothing new for Falsey

"It was about as good as I thought she could run - that was an A-plus," said Schaumburg coach Jon Macnider, an ITCCA Hall-of-Fame inductee who has guided the girls team to 19 appearances at the state meet. "It's a rarity to go down there and run an A-plus race. She has added a calming effect to our team - but she has dealt with a lot."

A shocking diagnosis

On a warm Columbus Day weekend in 2003, Colette Falsey and her family were dealt with a pretty big blow.

Colette was at the time a normal, healthy fifth grader at Enders-Salk grade school. She was preparing for a soccer match with the Schaumburg Phoenix but had little energy.

"We were doing warm-ups around the field, I felt like I couldn't breathe," said Colette. "It was weird because everyone was like 'Colette's tired.' I was always running."

It would get a lot stranger for Julie Falsey, a single mother of six children. Julie has a perfect split as her three oldest are boys Mike, Tim, and Kevin and the three youngest are girls Colette, Meghan, and Erin.

Besides raising a family of six, Julie also works for United Airlines, so she had more than enough to fill her plate.

Three days after the soccer match, doctors at the Loyola Medical Center in west suburb of Maywood confirmed their worst fears.

Colette was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common leukemia in children. ALL is a cancer of the white blood cells that normally fight infection in the body.

What was ahead for Colette was a long two years and three months worth of treatment. That included on-and-off trips three to four times a week to the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center at Loyola Medical Center the first six months for chemotherapy treatment.

Instead of watching school grades and soccer reports, Colette and her mom now had to watch for germs and her Absolute Neutrophil Count. Her risk of infection begins to increase when her ANC falls below 2,000, with greatest risk below 500.

"It was hard, but she actually made it easy for me," said Julie of Colette's attitude. "She never crabbed and she never whined - it was like a chore. This is what we have to do and that's what we did."

"When it all started I was taking so much medication, it was overwhelming," said Colette of her most difficult moments. "Then of course losing my hair: that would be hard for any girl."

Her 27-month treatment consisted of five phases, 15 lumbar punctures, and numerous stays at Loyola.

But Colette met it head on. When she lost her hair she simply started wearing bandanas. Even though she could not attend school for almost seven months, through tutoring by her teacher Mr. Ciacanelli and then with an a in-home camera connecting to her homeroom, Colette received straight A's for the entire year.

With the two oldest brothers Mike and Tim away at college, everyone pitched in.

"It was hard times, but I think as a whole we handled it about as well as you can," said Kevin, who was a sophomore at Schaumburg at the time and main babysitter for his two younger sisters.

There were also times of laughter such as when Colette teased the youngest Erin about her two missing front teeth. The then first-grader then shot back, "So what, you have cancer."

"At first we were taken back by her remark, but then we had a good laugh," added Julie.

The family was also supported by extended family and neighbors that cooked too many dinners to be counted and helped with anything they could.

Julie and her family also plugged into many of the support systems which were available, including "Big and Little Special Friends," a program developed by Loyola which matches its medical students with the patient and their siblings.

Meghan, who is a year younger than Colette, admitted to being pretty close to her sister, even if clothes and computer time sometimes get in the way. But she felt only one thing after Colette was diagnosed with leukemia.

"A lot of fear," said Meghan who is now a freshman at Schaumburg. "I didn't know if I was going to lose my sister, how was my younger sister handling it, how was the rest of the family handling it."

The "Special Friends" program alleviated some of those worries.

"It did, it got me more used to being in the environment of the hospital," added Meghan. "Even if someone is really sick or if they have disability they can still have fun, they can still be your friend."

Other groups provided support and outlets for the family. Colette was able to finish the last week of fifth grade with her classmates and gradually started to get back into sports, which had been such a big part of her life. She even reconnected with the soccer club.

"She never made a big deal about it," said Nora Ferguson, a member of the soccer team and now a cross country teammate at Schaumburg. "We could tell they were watching her more, but it was normal and she acted the same."

A month before her treatment would end, Colette was honored by the Make a Wish Foundation. She chose a Caribbean Cruise for her and the entire family.

But there was one catch; Colette would not go until her hair grew back.

But by December 2005, Colette's hair was long enough to braid with maroon and gold beads and the family was on its Caribbean adventure.

"I was looking forward to that all the time, we made countdown with chains," added Colette.

Colette came off treatment on Jan. 28, 2006.

An inspiring run

Schaumburg's girls cross country program has always been one of the elite in Illinois. Jon Macnider has guided his squad to 14 top-10 state finishes and four trophies, including state titles in 1982 and 1999.

Colette Falsey became a part of that tradition last season and this year teamed up with classmates Britten Petrey and Karen Lesiewicz to form the Saxons' nucleus.

The three combined to lead Schaumburg to its first state appearance since 2002 and have many comparing the youngsters to past standout Saxons' teams.

Ferguson, who was a member of her soccer club, and freshman Kelsey Steenstrup rounded out the top five finishers that helped Schaumburg secure 13th place at state this season.

And although Colette rarely shares her past struggles with her teammates, they are well aware of what she has endured.

"I definitely think she deserves everything she gets," said Lesiewicz, "She's gone through a lot in her life, but everything she accomplished this year she earned."

"Even now I think it's a miracle that someone went through that and can be so strong," added Ferguson.

Petrey recalled the harrowing collision at the start of the state race that Colette avoided.

"It was very nerve-wracking," said Petrey, who sustained three gashes on her achilles tendon due to the pile-up. "I lost contact with Colette and I was thinking, 'Where is she?' She's an amazing person and very inspiring."

Much happier times

A fresh covering of snow layered the Schaumburg area the Saturday before Christmas. The Falsey household was decked out for the season with stockings hanging by the fireplace and the Christmas tree adorned with the kids favorite ornaments.

Colette and her younger sisters Meghan and Erin circled the dining room table with their mother discussing their favorite memories of Christmas.

For one it was the pile of gifts Santa would leave for each of the children. For the other it was Santa's visit to the family gathering on Christmas Eve.

But for Colette, it was something different.

"It's the time to get with the family," she said. "It's the time when all the older kids are home, it's the holiday when everyone is together."

Her family, relatives, friends, teammates and neighbors have meant everything to Colette during her journey. She has meant just as much to them.

Signs of hope are everywhere to be found during the holidays. But Colette offered one more reason for hope.

"This may be the hardest time in your life," said Colette as she reflected on her journey. "But you should keep fighting. Sometimes you may feel weak or scared, but you'll be strong again someday."

A strength Colette Falsey has showed in an incredible way.