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Brittany Dvorak. Herald photo by John Stennes.

An extraordinary 14-year-old

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Brittany Dvorak is a pretty normal 14-year-old -- she loves to play sports, spend time with friends and go shopping. She's a little nervous about starting at Red River High School this fall because there will be so many new kids, but she loves school and wants to go into interior decorating or sports medicine at UND.

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But there is one thing that sometimes makes it hard for her to do the things other girls her age take for granted. It all started last October when she noticed a lump on her left shoulder after playing two back-to-back basketball games.

"There wasn't anything major, just the bump," she said.

The real cause would take Brittany and her family to Mayo Hospital in Rochester, Minn., and give the Dvoraks a whole new understanding of community support.

Why us?

Brittany was first given antibiotics to get over the suspected infection on a Saturday. The next Wednesday, she saw nurse practitioner Sue Hafner and Dr. Eric Lunn at Altru Hospital who suspected something far worse -- lymphoma cancer.

A chest scan showed a grapefruit-sized tumor pushing on her airway, and just nine hours after going in for a regular exam, Brittany was en route to Mayo Hospital. Doctors there did more testing and by Saturday, Oct. 15, 2008, determined she actually had T-cell ALL, a form of leukemia.

Her parents, Scott and Julie, said they expected they would just go to Altru Cancer Center for treatments, but found out they would be able only to get some testing done in Grand Forks. The family decided to undergo the chemotherapy and multiple other treatments at Mayo.

Scott said it was tough to understand it all when doctors took him and Julie into a private room and discussed what was wrong with their daughter, at the time a 13-year-old. "We had no clue what leukemia was," he said. "I was pretty upset right away -- just mad, just that she had it."

"And the why. Why us? Why Brittany?" Julie added.

Doctors explained that leukemia is a blood cancer that happened because a cancerous cell in her body wasn't recognized by antibodies that would otherwise fight it off. It caused a tumor to grow in her chest, and eventually lead to the lump in her shoulder that prompted the testing.

"It went from the scariest thing and turned out to be the best thing that it did pop up so we knew about it," Julie said.

Brittany said she wondered what she did wrong that caused her disease. But doctors assured her that it's not hereditary, something that just happened, and it's no one's fault.

She spent more than 30 days in Rochester receiving state-of-the-art medical care. Even with some of the best doctors in the world, the treatment wasn't a walk in the park.

She underwent a biopsy and steroid treatment just to get the diagnosis, and has since endured several spinal taps, multiple daily chemotherapy treatments at times and marrow tests that required removing bone fragments.

She now has a "port-a-cath" implanted into her right side, a round metal item with a long tube running into one of her main arteries that allows doctors to test her blood on a regular basis to see if she's up for more chemo.

Scott said the first six weeks were definitely the hardest and most intense. He remembers days when the family had to sit in a darkened hospital room because Brittany had terrible headaches and was sensitive to the light.

"So, we turned off all the lights and shades and she had dark glasses on," he said. "That was no fun at all for her. Basically, she was going through hell. Being a parent, what can you do? You can't do anything."

She still goes to Mayo for treatments occasionally but spends most of her time at home.

An opportunity

For the straight-A Schroeder Middle School student, it was hard to leave school and focus on her treatment. Brittany finished eighth grade with the help of a tutor and hasn't gone to classes in 2009.

Her teachers, fellow students and even former rivals on the basketball court all began to let her know she was missed, frequently writing to her Caring Bridge Web site, which allows people to read Brittany's updates posted by the family. More than 200,000 online visitors have seen her Web site, which can be visited at www.caringbridge.org/visit/brittanydvorak.

About a week after the diagnosis, she began to include the message "Life's a ride" on all her entries. Brittany said she was once having a bad day and wrote that down in a notebook along with a drawing, and it's morphed into a new philosophy on life.

"Some days, you're up, and then you're down, you're happy and sad, good and bad," she said.

Brittany still misses the things her leukemia makes difficult -- she can shoot hoops but can't play basketball games yet, and needs to be careful about being around people because of the germs that could make her sick.

It's hard, she said, but still an opportunity to make a difference. The support her family has received from strangers and friends helps inspire her and "lift us up," she said, and her parents said it's impossible to fully thank everyone who has supported them over the past seven months.

"We've always tried to be supportive and helpful people, but after this is done we're going to take every benefit, every opportunity we have to help people back," Julie said.

Brittany has already started giving back, and spent much of the winter preparing for this year's Relay for Life, an event that fundraises for the goal of eventually eliminating cancer. She'll be at the event in Grand Forks tonight selling orange shirts, bracelets and celebrating the theme "Shooting for a cause, praying for a cure" with basketballs and a hoop.

She raised more than $2,000 by herself and tries to use her condition to help others. "I want to find a cure for cancer so no one else has to go through this."

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