Growing up is tough. Growing up with cancer is even tougher. The graduates at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s 15th Annual Convocation Ceremony know it firsthand.
Each year, MSK Kids honors its own graduating class: children and teens who were treated for cancer or blood disorders at MSK Kids and are now graduating high school. On June 10, 2021, approximately 40 graduating high school seniors from states across the country gathered online for an event that celebrated their resilience in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
“You all inspire us, motivate us, and fill our hearts with pride,” said Craig B. Thompson, President and CEO of MSK, in his welcoming remarks.
He added words of wisdom for the Class of 2021: “Be open to trying new things and following paths you may not have set out on. Keep an eye on opportunities — they’re all around you.”
MSK Physician-in-Chief and Chief Medical Officer Lisa DeAngelis shared in the enthusiasm.
“Seeing you graduate from high school and moving forward is such a joy for all of us,” she said. “We are smiling broadly, even if it’s behind masks.”
Every student received an award for their contributions to the community through athletics, schoolwork, or community service and more. Grace West of New Jersey, who is being treated for neuroblastoma at MSK Kids, then delivered a heartfelt address to her classmates.
“The future is at our feet and we are going to walk all over it,” she said. ”Fellow graduates, we must remember that we have been given more than a second chance at life and we have to take advantage of that. Let’s set out to make a positive impact in the world, go for the unimaginable, and look beyond the percentage, the same way my MSK family looked at me.”
After she spoke, fellow New Jersey senior Keith Bellamy, who was treated for retinoblastoma at MSK Kids, performed a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Master of ceremonies and pediatric oncologist Paul Meyers called his rendition “beautiful.”
Nina Pickett, Senior Director of the Department of Pediatrics, called MSK’s educators — who help children keep up with schoolwork both in the classroom and at the bedside, and this year, virtually — “the epitome of resilience and creativity.”
Sona Kocinsky, an 18-year-old graduate from Trumbull, Connecticut, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2019. She was treated with chemotherapy, surgery, and immunotherapy at MSK Kids. She is now in remission and will attend Tufts University in the fall. In an interview before the ceremony, she reflected on her experience at MSK Kids.
Why did you decide to be treated at MSK Kids?
There were closer options, but one of the big reasons was that the treatment at MSK Kids was all outpatient. At another hospital we looked at, I’d have to be inpatient for a week at a time for treatment. At MSK Kids, you could go home each night. I also really liked the environment. The vibe there is lively. Everyone made us feel like we were in good hands. I thought: “If I have to go through this, I want to go through it here.”
Why did you want to attend Convocation?
When cancer first upended my life, it felt like my future had been ripped away. Really, the MSK Convocation is a special way for me to reflect on how far I’ve come and celebrate a milestone that a year and a half ago, I thought I might never reach.
What was your favorite thing to do while you were at MSK?
I loved the teen room, The Lounge. I would go to there to do homework, play games, and read in the book nook. One day we had a cupcake decorating party. There were also tons of snacks. It made me feel like I wasn’t at a hospital, but just hanging out.
Did you develop close relationships with any members of your care team?
Yes, with my nurse practitioner, Liz. I would see her when I went for treatment at MSK Westchester, which was closer to our home and easier to get to. She was just a great nurse who made sure we understood everything. I also loved that we would talk like friends about everything — not just cancer but also food, vacations, and things on our minds. When I got into college, I emailed her right away. She wrote back in all caps to congratulate me!
What was it like being at MSK Kids during COVID-19?
Like everyone, I was worried at first. I thought, “Will there be enough masks? Could my chemo still get shipped? Was it even safe for me to go to the hospital?” But MSK did a really great job handling it all. They never ran out of materials and my chemo was never interrupted. The toughest part was when they closed The Lounge. Things got a lot quieter. But it was closed to keep us all safe, which was most important.
What would you tell a teenager facing cancer?
Be willing to adapt and change your goals. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up or that you failed. For example, I don’t play soccer anymore, but I got into other hobbies, like running and painting. It’s all about finding different things I love.