Given the chance to make their wildest wishes come true, most teenagers might ask for a sports car, a shopping spree or a trip to Disneyland.
Eighteen-year-old Melinda Marchiano chose to bring hope to young cancer patients and their families.
“Not too many kids get the opportunity to wish for anything, so I wanted to make it count,” said the
Nipomo High School graduate, who worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation this summer to set up a 28-day “Hope Tour” throughout the West.
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Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 13, Melinda spent two years in treatment and recovery.
During that period, which included roughly four months of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation treatment, she experienced violent side effects such as hair loss, mouth sores and intense back and stomach pain. Later, she battled depression and an eating disorder.
Although her situation looked grim at times, Melinda said one incident in particular gave her hope.
After her first round of chemotherapy, she was visited by a young cancer survivor named Rachel.
“She just looked so beautiful, so healthy and happy,” recalled Melinda, who later wrote about her experiences in her 2009 memoir “Grace: A Child’s Intimate Journey Through Cancer and Recovery.” “I can’t even tell you what it meant to me at that moment to see her. … Living and surviving and thriving after you’d been through (cancer) was something I thought was extremely difficult or even impossible.”
Melinda, whose cancer is in remission, now wants to bring the same experience to others.
In the summer of 2010, Melinda and her mother embarked on her first Hope Tour, traveling more than 7,000 miles to visit children’s hospitals in 28 states. The trip was sponsored by the Alexa Nawrocki Pediatric Cancer Foundation in Marlton, N.J.
“This was something that Melinda really wanted to do,” Lee Marchiano said. “It was a crazy idea and it was a crazy thing to do, but oh my gosh, the blessings that came to us and came to everyone we visited. … It was stupendous.”
When Melinda decided to visit more cancer patients this July, she turned to Make-A-Wish for help.
Melinda first landed on the nonprofit organization’s list while undergoing cancer treatment. (To be eligible for Make-A-Wish, a child must have a life-threatening medical condition and be between the ages of 2½ and 18 at the time of referral.)
Although Melinda originally wanted to dance with the New York City Ballet, she’s glad that wish wasn’t ultimately granted. “I realize now what a blessing (that) was,” she said, because it paved the way for Hope Tour 2.
In July, Melinda and her mother headed up the coast of California, visiting hospitals in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Arizona before returning to their home state.
Make-A-Wish orchestrated their entire trip, providing for lodging, gas and food. The group even gave the Marchianos a little “fun money” to spend on souvenirs.
“It was just an unbelievable education … for Melinda and me,” Lee Marchiano said. “It was an amazing experience.”
At Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Ore., Melinda met a little girl whose chemotherapy-induced mouth sores left her unable to speak. Instead, she scribbled replies on her notepad as Melinda chatted with her and her mother.
“We had this wonderful, deep, really meaningful (discussion) about being strong and the beauty of struggle,” Melinda recalled. “There were so many beautiful moments like that on the trip.”
Over the course of the month, she encountered cancer patients of all ages, from infants to adults. But she connected most with the teenagers, who appreciated talking to someone whose experiences mirrored their own.
“When you’re a little kid and you have cancer, you don’t fully understand the seriousness of the situation,” she explained. “It’s very different when you’re a teenager and realize how sick you really are. You start having all those scary thoughts about, ‘Well, am I going to die? What does that mean?’ ”
Months later, Melinda’s Hope Tour is still getting attention. She was featured in a full-page Make-A-Wish advertisement in the Nov. 19 issue of People magazine.
Although Melinda’s mother had sent photos to the organization, she said it was still a “big surprise” to see her daughter staring up at her from the pages of the magazine.
“I almost passed out in Walmart, to be honest with you,” Lee Marchiano said.
Make-A-Wish isn’t Melinda’s only high-profile project, either. She’s currently working with The Truth 365, a documentary and social media campaign seeking to shine a light on childhood cancer research.
“Ultimately, we’re looking for more funding from the National Cancer Institute,” explained Melinda, who’s studying biochemistry at Pepperdine University in Malibu with plans to become a pediatric oncologist.
As a teenage cancer survivor, “I have a little deeper understanding of what the kids are going through,” she said. “I hope to bring that to my profession.”