Michelle Collins was a 14-year-old competitive dancer with big dreams when her young life took a dramatic turn.
The Sugar Land teen danced as many as six hours a day so her parents weren’t too concerned when she first complained of being tired. But when she mentioned she also felt weak, they took her to a doctor to get checked out. A blood test turned up a low white blood cell count so they were referred to a specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He told Michelle’s parents not to worry unless she got a high fever.
“Never even dreamed of the word cancer. Never even entered our minds,” Victoria Collins said.
It wasn’t long after that, when Michelle came down with a very high fever and was rushed to the emergency room. A bone marrow biopsy confirmed it was childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia. Big words for a 14 year old.
“I didn’t really know what that was,” Michelle said. “Hearing the word ‘cancer’ put my mind and body into complete shock.”
Michelle started chemo right away but the powerful drugs caused her colon to perforate – and nearly killed her. Doctors did emergency surgery and told her parents it was “touch and go” and the next 10 days in ICU would be critical.
“You can’t even imagine,” Victoria said. “All we could do was pray.”
“That was scary,” Michelle said. “I remember waking up in a lot of pain.”
She spent 44 days in the hospital -- her tiny, weakened body now fighting two life-threatening illnesses. She had to be fed through a tube.
“88 pounds, her legs were like little toothpicks,” Remembered Victoria.
After weeks of needles and nurses, painful spinal taps and endless tests, Michelle finally got to go home. But things were far from normal. She shared those memories in an essay she wrote when applying for admission to the University of Texas.
“My deteriorated immune system kept me out of public and away from friends. I felt
isolated and frail, feelings that were strange and upsetting. Cancer slowly ate away at my
youthful muscle, energy, and personality. I didn’t have the slightest strength to dance, something
that once gave me so much power. I hated the pity others gave me. I never wanted any one to
worry about me and watch over me with so much caution. I knew I had to get back on my feet
and fight this horrible illness to return to what this ticket took me away from.”
It took months to recover from the surgery and regain her strength before she could continue chemo. But the determined teen gradually bounced back – in body and spirit.
She finished 9th grade and part of 10th grade online, and made the Dean’s Honor Roll after returning to school at St. Agnes.
“A new-found determination motivated me to keep my mind focused on my goals and ambitions,” she wrote in her essay. “I don’t ever want to waste a second of the precious life I fought so hard to keep.”
After everything she’d been through, graduation was especially meaningful for Michelle and her proud parents.
“Super exciting to graduate. They chose me to carry in the American flag for graduation,” Michelle said. “It was just great to graduate with my friends.”
As she looks to the future, Michelle hasn’t forgotten her friends back at MD Anderson, including the ones who didn't survive. She is passionate about helping other pediatric cancer patients and has volunteered at hospital camps.
Michelle, now 18, said she was inspired by the younger patients’ spirit and courage as they fought cancer.
“Seeing those little kids that are like 5 or 6 going through chemo … they never complain,” she said.
While undergoing treatment, Michelle found a creative outlet in MD Anderson’s Children’s Art Project and even appeared on a poster to promote the artwork. You’ll see her name on many of their products.
One of Michelle’s favorite memories was serving as an ambassador in Kendra Scott’s National Giveback Day campaign, along with friend and fellow patient Kayla Deroche. Working with the jewelry designer reaffirmed Michelle’s interest in fashion. She plans to pursue a career in fashion and advertising at the University of Texas.
She will enter college with the knowledge that cancer forever changed her and for that, she’s grateful.
“I have to be thankful for it. Bad memories of suffering are slowly being replaced with joyful moments.”
And for this Sugar Land teen, there are many more joyful moments ahead.