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Graduating from high school is a goal many feared Genesis Perozo would never achieve. The 20-year-old has been battling a rare adrenal cancer, pheochromocytoma, since she was a little girl.
Her most recent scans show spots in her lungs, which could mean the cancer is spreading, but on her graduation day this week from a south Florida high school, Perozo was determined to set those fears aside for a day to enjoy her moment.
"I'm not going to think about how I got here," she said smiling, her eyes misted with tears as an artist from a local salon that donated its services did her make-up.
As millions of young men and women reach the milestone of high school graduation, some stories of perseverance and success rise above the rest. Genesis Perozo's is one of them.
Perozo had a tumor removed when she was 7, but the cancer returned and surgeons had to take out her two damaged adrenal glands. A subcutaneous port implanted in her chest now releases chemotherapy drugs designed to control the disease from advancing.
Not having adrenal glands makes her dependent on daily synthetic hormones. "Her body can go into shock without them," says Dr. Ofelia Alvarez at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the pediatric oncologist who has been treating Genesis since her cancer was diagnosed.
A minimum of three daily pills help the young woman cope with symptoms. They include heart palpitations, pounding headaches and high blood pressure. Some days she needs many more pills. "She's an amazing young woman," says Alvarez. "She is a survivor."
Perozo has struggled with more than health problems during her school years. She lives alone in a room she rents from a West Palm Beach family, her mother in Venezuela and her father in prison. Her disability check hardly covers living expenses.
But nothing was going to get in the way of the dream of that diploma even if it sometimes seemed far-fetched. Last year there was a point when she asked herself if it was time to stop struggling. "I didn't give up,” she says. “I was just doubting myself for a moment."
There were times when she followed classes by phone, too sick to get out bed. "I could only hear other students commenting and sometimes I wouldn't understand," she says.
Perozo's school counselor reached out to the dropout prevention group Communities In Schools to get the struggling student help. That's when Julie Khanna, a nurse and mother of three, a graduate of the program, volunteered to be the young woman's mentor.
It was an ideal match. Khanna not only mentors the young woman, but manages her medical appointments, sometimes driving her for hours to see different doctors, all while ferrying her children ages 6 through 13 to school activities.
"I honestly don’t know how I do it. All I know is that I want to succeed."
"I'm disciplined and organized," she says. "I cook dinner first thing in the morning, because you never know what life is going to throw at you that day."
Khanna's children treat Genesis as a sibling. "They're family," she says.
At a time when graduates are making summer plans, Genesis is scheduling her next set of doctor appointments and scans. Her cancer is in the advanced stages. She has restarted oral chemotherapy. But she is determined to attend college. Her new dream is a college degree in psychology.
"I take it one day at a time," she says. "I honestly don’t know how I do it.
"All I know is that I want to succeed."
Thursday, she was asked to address her fellow graduates of Riviera Beach Preparatory and Achievement Academy's Class of 2015.
At the podium, tears flowing, she told her story and delivered a final message: “Keep telling yourself you can, no matter what happens, yes you can.”