Doctors and nurses surrounded the bed of then 16-year-old Tracy Vicere with comforters and balloons to give her some comfort after she learned there was a lump on her neck in June 1989.
Vicere was at Cohen Children’s Hospital, in Queens, about a half hour’s drive from her home in Farmingdale, a suburb of New York City. It was the day after her birthday.
The youngster loved going shopping and swimming with her friends. The news she was about to get threatened to change all that.
Now 45, the special-education teacher at Woodward Parkway Elementary School in Farmingdale, wants to give back to the hospital that made a difficult time in her life bearable.
After celebrating her spectacular sweet 16 party in June 1989, Vicere visited a doctor for a preoperative check to remove a cyst she developed during a Disney World trip with family. The physician then spotted a mass on her neck.
She was diagnosed with two different types of cancer: Stage 3A Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma Stage 1A in June 1989.
“It was right before my 16th birthday and we had to get it biopsied,” she said. “So the day after my 16th birthday, I was admitted into the hospital. What I had was kind of rare, not a lot of people have two cancers at once.”
It was a few months after her sister, Amy Vicere, then 14, went into remission in November 1988, after treatment for Stage 2A Hodgkin lymphoma. Vicere knew, from watching her sister, what was coming.
Vicere underwent staging laparotomy, a surgical procedure that allows surgeons to visualize the abdominal contents and remove any suspicious masses.
“They biopsied all your liver, all your organs, and when they opened me up, they found out my left ovaries had a mass on it—the size of a grapefruit,” she said.
The cancer had spread to other parts of her body all the way to the reproductive system. Physicians removed her left ovary and spleen.
The young fighter didn’t let cancer stop her from enjoying life. “My parents were amazing,” she said. “They still let me do all the normal 16-year-old kid stuff. I still lived my same life.”
Vicere wasn’t supposed to be around groups of people due to the risk of infection, but she still attended parties and events with her friends and family.
While the teen tried to enjoy her childhood, she had a difficult time with the effects of her radiation treatments.
“I never looked at myself as being a child with cancer until the moment I lost my hair,” she said. “I used to find pieces of my hair everywhere. You’re so worried about what you look like and how you represent yourself.”
There were events she missed however, memories she never got to make. Like prom. Vicere was at the intensive care unit while her friends were dancing. “I was sick and I needed a lung biopsy,” she said. “I had the dress. I had everything ready to go, but I couldn’t go.”
However, The Marty Lyons Foundation (MLF), which tries to grant the wishes children between three and 17 years old facing a life-threatening illness, threw a party for Vicere.
It was a prom of her closest friends, held at the hospital, thanks to the foundation and staff.
“It was kind of cool,” she said. “It was all the people that I liked.”
Soon after the occasion, she started to feel better. “I was so happy that was my last day of radiation,” she said.
But the chemotherapy and radiation therapy took their toll. Vicere was left with multiple sclerosis, a condition in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves.
But it’s hard to not be grateful when you are still alive. “If it wasn’t for my remission, I wouldn’t be celebrating my birthday,” she said.
“I had an amazing group of friends that were there to support me every step of the way,” she said. “No one ever looked at me like I was sick.”
Regular visits from her loved ones contributed to her well-being. The hospital had a play-room, containing toys, games, books, and crafts.
Staff members planned trips and getaways with the patients. Vicere took advantage of those opportunities and went to dinner and circuses, among other destinations.
And she also made her own memories, and new friends, including staff at the hospital who helped ease her way through cancer.
One of her favorite childhood memories was placing dolls on chairs and teaching them. “When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a chalkboard, I would line-up my dolls and I would teach them,” she said.
The experience sparked an interest in teaching.
After her remission, Vicere attended Wagner College with a Bachelor’s degree in education from Staten Island, N.Y.
“I just love teaching,” Vicere said. “I love the kids that I work with. I love that it’s unpredictable. You can be in the worst mood that day and one of your kids says something to you and it could be like the cutest, funniest thing.”
She has watched her students go from not being able to spell their names to knowing math calculations at Woodward Parkway Elementary School.
“I’ll see my kids from September to June—just the growth they make each year—it’s amazing,” Vicere said.
It’s been more than 25 years since her last radiation treatment and Vicere is focused on others who could face what she did.
Vicere established Friends & Angels: The Tracy Vicere Foundation, to provide normalcy to patients and brighten the lives of children battling a terminal illness.
The foundation has donated more than $125,000 to programs that keep patients’ joy and comfort high during this difficult time in their lives.
They have helped support patients receiving treatment in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and Stem Cell Transplantation at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of NY.
The foundation has provided patients with essentials including hospital scrapbooks so they can document their journey. It has also decorated rooms for bone marrow transplant patients to make the experience more pleasant.
Donations have ranged from gift cards, stuffed animals, or video games to a flat screen TV.
Vicere is inspired by the help she received from medical professionals, family, and friends during her own cancer experience.
“There are so many people that want to help, whether it’s the teachers that I work with or other staff or families,” she said.
“Our mission is to improve the quality of life. We try to do things to make their stay at the hospitals as easy and fun as possible and to make life easier for the parents.”