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North Hall sophomore won't back down to cancer
North Hall High School sophomore and basketball player Jazmine Hayes, center, 16, reacts after her teammates surprise her Tuesday with a sweet 16 birthday party after practice at the school. Hayes was diagnosed with leukemia last year around midseason. The leukemia is currently in remission. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

What Jazmine Hayes enjoyed most about last Tuesday’s surprise birthday party with her North Hall High basketball teammates was that she could just relax and be a normal 16-year-old girl for a while. There was no long drive to the hospital planned that day, nor were there any concoctions of chemicals pumped into her body that afternoon to help battle the acute lymphoblastic leukemia that doctors diagnosed her with on March 9 of last year.

Before traveling to the Atlanta area later in the afternoon for a basketball game, Hayes’ teammates and coaches took the time to shower her with a few presents and share cupcakes and pizza together.

For Hayes, who has battled a seemingly never-ending cycle of medications to combat the cancer and accompanying physical pain, such a gesture was priceless.

“I had no clue they were throwing a surprise party for me,” Hayes said. “But when I saw what they did, I thought ‘wow, that takes it to the next level.’

“It was just so sweet for them to do that.”

Even though the party was a surprise, Hayes knew something was up as practice started to wind down and she smelled pizza coming from an upstairs classroom in the gymnasium. That struck her as an odd meal choice before an afternoon game.

Once the surprise was revealed, Hayes was shown how much she meant to the Lady Trojans. Her coaches gave her a new Adidas basketball warm-up suit. Hayes also was given earrings and a new purse from a pair of close friends, along with having her locker decorated by teammates.

“Jazmine was totally surprised,” her mother Traci Holloway said. “The day before her birthday she said ‘I hope they don’t forget my birthday.’”

After the year that Hayes has been through, a party was the least that those closest to her could do.

The same thing that drew Hayes to the gym last Tuesday morning was the same thing that has kept her motivated through her fight against cancer: basketball.

Even though the cancer is in remission, the battle still isn’t over. According to her mother, they have treatment scheduled through the summer of 2012.

The goal at this stage is to weather the cycles of chemotherapy and spinal tap injections well enough to be able to play an entire minute of basketball at a time without getting fatigued. Then Hayes will know she’s turned the corner and has a grip on her leukemia.

“I’m so determined to do the best I can with this situation,” Hayes said. “I’m never going to give up. Giving up isn’t in my vocabulary.

“Basketball gives me hope and is something for me to look forward to ... I love basketball.”

One of the main indicators of Hayes’ daily condition is her blood platelets. A low count means that she’ll be unable to get on the court that day. However, even that doesn’t discourage Hayes from being right there beside her team every chance she gets. Lately, the blood platelet counts have remained low and she’s made weekly trips to oncologists at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the site of all her treatments.

Among the treatments, she has to contend with steroids that cause spikes in her energy levels and strength, oral chemotherapy, and chemo treatments that are injected through a circular port in her chest. However, one of the most encouraging signs is that many of the treatments that were administered on a weekly basis initially have been cut down to once per month since health care professionals have determined that Hayes is responding in a positive manner.

Even though she’s lost her hair as a result of the treatment, Hayes has become comfortable without wearing a wig in public.

“As time has gone by, she’s gotten stronger,” said her boyfriend Junior Maruri. “She’s the kind of girl that will not give up and has really grown more confident.”

Hayes, a sophomore, is considered hospital homebound and has a teacher come to her house and help complete assignments when she is unable to attend school. Since her diagnosis, Hayes has missed three complete weeks of class, including a week in October when she came down with a viral infection.

Even though it has been a long battle, Hayes hasn’t only had her mother by her side. She also has a big extended family including her father, step-parents, grandparents and a close network of friends to keep her spirits high and help watch out for her.

The North Hall basketball team is just an extension of that family. Lady Trojans coach Kristi House says that Hayes has an undeniable spirit on the basketball court. On occasions when Hayes falls, she gets back up and keeps going. The rest of the team can’t help but feed off her energy.

“Jazmine is just a wonderful person and very optimistic,” House said. “She always tries to act like everything is ok, but we make sure to protect her physically.”

However, when Hayes first got sick last February, they realized everything wasn’t perfectly fine. A series of accidents on the court led Hayes and her mother to have her health checked out. She recalls the first incident was a fall in a junior varsity game against Flowery Branch that left her with an injured collar bone. Shortly after that, she injured her hip, followed by an injury to her jaw.

“I was at the point where my legs were hurting, my back was hurting and my mouth was hurting,” Hayes said.
Although she recovered from those injuries, the pain didn’t cease.

After an initial series of tests at hospitals that came back clear, she went for her 15-year-old physical and it came back that her blood counts were low.

Then a trip to Children’s Healthcare provided the news that no one wants to hear: it was cancer. Hayes says she’ll never forget that moment in the hospital room with her mother and grandfather by her side when the doctor said it was leukemia.

“I was in shock,” Hayes said. “I was thinking, ‘wow, out of all the kids in the world, this happened to me.’”

The good news, if there is such a thing in a situation like this, was that doctors discovered the cancer while it was contained to the bone marrow and before it spread through her blood. Medical research shows that the survival rate of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia past five years is higher than 85 percent. With her early detection, doctors have told Hayes she has a promising future.

Still, there are days when she doesn’t feel good. Some days she doesn’t feel like she can leave the bed, and others she feels like she could sprint up and down the court without missing a step. Last Thursday, she got the chance to get in a varsity game for a few seconds at the end of the quarter twice against West Hall. That’s a victory in itself.

With her optimistic personality, Hayes is the kind of person that is going to celebrate the good days and find a way to push through the bad ones.

And one day, hopefully soon, she’ll be able to say she’s cancer free.

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