Cancer Patients Celebrate Their Lives at Prom

It's that time of year again: the spring prom. Usually it marks the end of a school year, but for 75 young people -- some barely toddlers -- there is a prom of a different sort in New York each year. It's a much needed celebration for children fighting cancer.

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Natalia Harris, who is 12 and battling bone cancer, eagerly anticipated the big event.

"I didn't go to my sixth-grade prom. I didn't have one, so I'm happy," Harris said. "I want to dance around because I can't -- I've danced all my life, but I can't dance now."

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In the pediatric wing at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, "The Prom" is the year's main event. The prom, usually used in connection with the end of a school year, started at the hospital 15 years ago with a dozen young patients who were well enough to go to the playroom in the inpatient unit. There were no DJs and no dresses, but the patients would wear their hospital attire and enjoy their own version of a ritual that other kids their age enjoyed at the local schools. Now, about 80 young cancer patients a year count down the days until the party.

This year, with the big bash only a few days away, the "question" loomed ever larger: What to wear?

The young cancer patients get to borrow the fanciest of dresses and gowns, all donated from the Society for Memorial Sloan-Kettering. The children's and associates committees of the society help to solicit the outfits from individuals and designers through a host of efforts throughout the year.

As the big day nears, pediatric staff and other volunteers work to set-up 'Promingdales' -- the in-hospital boutique. Here, the children can pick out their outfits and accessories, try everything on and get help with last-minute alterations and additions. A playful hand-painted sign that says "Promingdales" leads young prom-goers and their parents to an open area full of dresses, makeup, tuxes and other formal wear where children can "shop" for the perfect outfit.

Melanie Rickles, who's 13 and in the midst of chemotherapy, could not wait.

Though she's never been to a prom before, she hoped "it will be magical." These children could use a little magic. Many have endured months of painful treatments. They not only feel different but also look different. Many begin to socially "withdraw." The prom is designed to pull them back. Mothers remind their children that they will look "beautiful," and young girls can get excited about dressing up in pink dresses and flowing gowns.

Dr. Farid Boulad of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center explained, "Because on that day, everything that has to do with cancer is gone. And they are the kings and queens and they're beautiful."

Finally, on the big day, the organizers put on some last minute touches on the girls -- makeup and nail polish -- and the party can begin. With the hospital cafeteria transformed into a ballroom, the prom becomes a unique experience. Shannon Callagy, a 16-year-old cancer patient, said, "When you don't really feel that well, you don't see anyone. But this is nice. We can all have fun here together."

Erin Chance, watching her 5-year-old son, Patrick, on the dance floor, said, "This means a lot. He definitely associates the hospital with a lot of pain. His treatment is very painful and it makes him feel very bad, so to see him here and having fun with his friends, his nurses, it's great. To see him out there, healthy, energetic, just keep moving, means the world."

On the dance floor, the patients, some still attached to their IV poles, are surrounded not only by their families, but by their doctors and nurses.

Patricia Madigan, mother of 5-year-old patient Kate, said her daughter has been wearing her prom dress for two weeks.

"She slept in it last night. I have been washing it out in the sink and hanging it to dry over the tub. She's having the time of her life. And she's been out dancing. Oh, its been wonderful," Madigan said. "As a mom, seeing the treatments they go through, you know, it's hard. It's hard for them when they lose their hair, when they don't feel good, when they throw up. You know, and seeing them out here dancing like normal kids, just chokes me up. It's wonderful."

For a few fleeting hours, these children who have been through so much, in an effort to save their lives, finally get a chance to celebrate them.

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