BARK RIVER - High school can be a difficult time in any teenager's life, but for Payten Bozzo-LaMarch - who was diagnosed with leukemia in July - the challenge of being a teen with cancer is just another chance to sparkle.
"I'm diagnosed with leukemia. I think it's really harder on my family than it is on me," said the 16-year-old, Bark River-Harris sophomore.
On July 25, Payten was first admitted to the emergency room because she was fainting. Doctors discovered that she was several pints of blood low, however, because of her condition they were unable to determine her blood type.
Above, from left, Sam Martin, Katie Johnson, Laticia Porath, and Brie Robinette proudly display their Team Payten t-shirts, to show support for Bark River-Harris sophomore Payten Bozzo-LaMarch on the first day of school Tuesday. Johnson and Porath shaved their heads in honor of Bozzo-LaMarch during a recent football game. (Daily Press photo by Holly Richer)
Doctors decided to send Payten to St. Vincent's Hospital in Green Bay. Under normal circumstances, Payten would have been flown to the Wisconsin hospital by helicopter, but severe weather and tornado warnings led a team of St. Vincent paramedics to drive an ambulance from Green Bay to OSF St. Francis Hospital to retrieve her.
"I think it was kind of fun," said Payten of the ambulance ride. "I don't know how fast we were going, but we'd just go through and everyone would move aside."
By the next morning, doctors had diagnosed Payten with acute meyloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that causes blood cells not to develop properly. The abnormal blood cells in patients with AML can build up in the blood and marrow, leaving less room for healthy cells.
"My life changed on July 26 when they told us," said Payten's mother, Gina Bozzo. "I think her life changed, but it doesn't have to be for the worse. You can have cancer, and you can have it with style and grace."
Payten has done just that, managing to not only keep a positive outlook but also to appreciate the medical team that is helping in her treatment.
"The nurses are really fun," said Payten, adding there were a few nurses she has bonded with since she began receiving chemotherapy. "When people send me snacks or cupcakes or stuff I kind of share with them and they really appreciate that."
Her popularity with the nurses has not gone unnoticed.
"She's like a little star over there. Everybody kind of loves her," said Payten's father, Phil LaMarch.
Back home, Payten has even more supporters wearing orange, the color for leukemia support, t-shirts and wristbands - all with the message "Sparkle on."
"I've always told Payten to sparkle and shine," said Bozzo, adding the mantra seemed to fit as a message of support on the shirts and bracelets.
The shirts themselves were a team effort by Angie Wandahsega and Pam Petrie, both parents of friends of Payten. Shirts and wristbands can be requested through the frequently-updated Prayers for Payten Facebook page, www.facebook.com/groups/Prayers4Payten. Shirts are $12 and wristbands are $2.
In addition to the many supporters who have purchased the t-shirts and wristbands on their own, Payten's family received shirts donated by Stenberg Sitters, and Garceau Wenick-Kutz Magowan Insurance provided them to the entire Bark River-Harris sophomore class.
Students were asked to wear their shirts on the first day of school in support of the classmate and cheerleader who will be absent this year while she is receiving treatment or at home.
"Treatment is aggressive, like it is with all leukemias, but it's mainly in-patient because of the dosage and the chance of infection. Because basically it completely wipes out her immune system," said LaMarch. "She's had two fevers now, which is like huge. If you get a fever, it's immediately into the hospital. Chances are if she were to get one here they'd have to airlift her back. It's that important."
Both Payten and her 7-year-old younger sister, Zowie, are working with the school to follow a creative curriculum that allows them to be absent while Payten is in treatment.
"They were only going to give her a couple of classes, but she requested more," said Bozzo. "They're giving her an opportunity to stay a sophomore and work at a sophomore's pace."
Even though the school is working with Payten, that doesn't mean the situation is easy.
"I think it stinks just because I don't get to see my teachers. Of course I hate homework, but I'd rather be back at school," said Payten. "I'm looking forward to getting over this so I can get back to school and do everything I did before."
Payten credits her ability to handle her situation to her friends and family. Football players and other classmates - including a few girls - have shaved their heads and numerous fundraisers have been held in support.
"It really feels good to know that people are supporting you and praying for you," said Payten, adding that she hadn't experienced that kind of support outside her own family.
Both of Payten's parents say that because of her strength, Payten is handling her situation better than they are, but they continue to support their daughter in any way they can.
"He's worn it so much it's almost yellow," said LaMarch's wife, Sara, of her husband's wristband.
"I haven't taken it off," he replied.