Surviving High School
How one senior translated hard luck into strength.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Riley McDowell is drugged, yet awake enough to feel the pressure of the power tool-like drill grinding through his bone—and more than awake enough to feel the excruciating pain when it hits a nerve. Later, McDowell is strapped down with a facemask, and radiation is sent through both his temples. It sounds like a painfully unique experience, but for McDowell, it was just another day at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Stanford Cancer Center.
With treatments taking place once every three weeks during the fall—and for as many as five days a week—McDowell’s 2005-06 senior year at Pacific Grove High School was certainly unique. But despite knowing that each year just 150 out of 74 million Americans under the age of 18 are diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma—a cancer that attacks the bone marrow and can spread to the heart, lungs and other soft tissues—he made peace with his uniqueness.
McDowell, wearing a baseball cap over his still thin hair, explains how his hard-luck odds were far from his focus. “The experience sucked,” he says: pale skin, brittle bones, thinning body. “But I gained more emotional and mental strength; I have a better outlook on life.
“In the hospital, I saw a lot of patients that got too caught up with the illness. I didn’t want to do that. You have to enjoy the time you have alive.”
McDowell recalls carrying a sense of optimism to help his family cope, lending support to another PG high student with cancer and continuing to help his football team.
“He was still one of the guys,” said teammate and friend, Austin Gil.
The soon-to-be college freshman, who plans on studying kinesiology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, avoids talking much more about himself. He’d prefer to talk about good-looking women, getting back in shape and Mel Brooks comedies.
McDowell’s five-year remission began on Jan. 10, meaning four and a half years of waiting and hoping the cancer doesn’t come back. It’s a unique feeling.