You can’t always choose your journey, but you can decide the way in which you live.
Within the normalcy of a 15-year-old’s life — family, friends, school and sports — Isabella Messina’s journey is one of a kind.
She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at 20 months old and then acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 6. It’s not supposed to happen that way, at least not in that order.
“Three things could have happened,” her father, Pat Messina, said. “It could have morphed into something else. Or it was misdiagnosed the first time, which wasn’t the case. Or she was the most unlucky 6-year-old on the planet, and the two cases were completely unrelated.”
She was fortunate in at least one way during her second bout with cancer.
Her brother, Jack, was a match. He donated bone marrow to save her life when he was 2 years old.
‘We’ll always be connected to this’
The Messinas packed light — just an overnight bag — to go to the hospital in Hershey the first time.
Who would know what to bring when you’ve just been told your toddler has cancer? Friends and family scrambled to bring them clothes and essentials, and Isabella didn’t return to State College for almost two months.
“You realize this is our life now, and it’s never going to be what it was,” she said. “We’ll always be connected to this.”
The nightmare repeated itself four years later, but they found a way to make it a little easier on her.
Isabella had been asking for a dog before she got cancer a second time. When they learned about her ALL diagnosis, they found Ozzie, a labradoodle that lifted her spirits.
Even though the apartment where they stayed didn’t allow pets, they made an exception for the little girl with a big smile.
“She had the bone marrow transplant from her brother, and for 100 days she was not allowed to be so many miles away from hospital,” Pat Messina said. “We went back and worth in the apartment, and we still had to work.”
Through the ups and downs, though, she had spunk.
Isabella was often hooked up to an IV while riding a tricycle in the hospital’s hallways. At about 2 years old, she would walk the halls with her parents in the middle of the night looking for Tucker Haas, another Thon child who survived cancer. If she wanted a little competition — and she loves competition — she played air hockey.
Isabella always liked to be on the move, regardless of her condition.
“I consider Isabella to be a success story, and we’re blessed and grateful because I know there are a lot of families that don’t have their kids here today,” her mother, Renee Messina, said. “I’m grateful for that by all means. Cancer is also something that will never be behind her. It will never be something she had to deal with as child that she left behind her.”
‘It’s amazing just to watch’
Isabella didn’t choose to stop growing in sixth grade. She didn’t choose to have to take a daily list of medicines for the rest of her life. And she didn’t choose to get annual checkups to determine if she has a clean bill of health.
The cancer caused all of this.
But much like when she was a kid determined to have fun in the hospital, she takes it in stride.
“It doesn’t bother me much,” Isabella said.
She does everything she enjoys, particularly lacrosse and field hockey.
“After what she’s been through in the past 13 years, it’s amazing just to watch,” Pat Messina said. “It’s not just that she’s here, it’s that she plays and excels at sports even through she’s had to overcome things that some other kids haven’t. I’m very proud of her.”
Isabella plays defense, opting to relish the first position she ever played and the one she has never left. She’s the last safety net before opponents get to her goalie.
She’s got a tenacious streak, too — just imagine her favorite moment on the field in a game against Carlisle in September.
“The goalie was on top of the ball, which should have been a stroke, but I just kind of kept hitting the goalie and it went through for a score,” she said. “My team was pretty excited, because it was the first goal I scored that season.”
She scored the game’s only two goals.
‘Out of the goodness of their hearts’
Isabella and Jack Messina called the Bryce Jordan Center “Thon” when they were younger, often wanting to go back inside for more fun with college students. Their parents had to explain that the 46-hour dance marathon was only once a year.
She first connected with Kristen Miller, a Penn State field hockey player and Thon dancer for the Student Athlete Advisory Board in 2004. Miller sent Isabella letters for years.
Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon — a student-run philanthropy that benefits children with cancer — isn’t necessarily the same for young children and teenagers.
“It changes,” Pat Messina said. “When she was 2, 3, 4, 5 it’s different for the little kids. This is mostly set up for the little kids. We were in the news, in videos, on the ‘Today Show,’ the front page of the CDT. And I’m not taking anything away from Thon, but she’s almost their age now. It’s not the same, ‘Aw, look at the little kid relationship.’ She’ll be 16, so it’s really that the relationships change.”
As she got older she became more of a peer to Thon volunteers, and the Messinas found ways to give back.
Renee often speaks at large gatherings, most recently in October at 100 Days till Thon in the HUB-Robeson Center. Her 10-minute speech largely made the HUB silent.
Students who weren’t volunteers stopped in their tracks or turned their chairs toward Renee Messina to listen to her story.
“I’m doing this for selfish reasons, and they’re doing it for unselfish reasons,” Renee Messina said. “They do it out of the goodness of their hearts.”
It’s hard for Isabella to peg down exactly what she enjoys the most about Thon, but it always seems to come back to two things: her dancers and her friends from Camp Can Do, a weeklong camp for kids diagnosed with cancer.
“When I see my friends from camp we usually will hang out together at Thon,” Isabella said. “It’s the only other time that we have time to see each other outside of camp. We have that connection, especially at Thon, that we are all a part of this. (Cancer) is something that we all have in common, and we all fit in.”
She also feels things have changed.
When she was younger, Thon’s dancers were there for her. They still are, but now she realizes that it goes both ways.
“It is me being there for them,” she said. “You can tell when they’re getting tired. You can tell when they’re getting worn out. You know you have to help them through it and cheer them through it. All of them are there for you, but you’re there for them, too.”