Sarah Delaney has never been the kind of girl to let anything slow her down.
The 2003 LHS grad who attended Donlin Drive Elementary and Chestnut Hill Middle School was senior class president, a member of the prom committee and heavily involved in school affairs. That didn’t change after graduation; Sarah enrolled at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in Spanish and took the school by storm. Despite terrible stomachaches that started in May of 2006, Sarah took part in a triathlon in October of last year and was preparing to train for another.
But on Nov. 8, 2006, everything came to a screeching halt.
That was the day that Sarah, daughter of C-NS grads Stephen and Barbara Delaney and sister of St. John Fisher freshman Rebecca, was diagnosed with Stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
But Sarah’s getting the momentum going again, so amazing everyone with her strength that a benefit to be held Sunday April 29 at Liverpool High School in her honor is called “Sarah’s Strength.”
“She’s always been this kind of kid,” Barb Delaney, a teacher’s aide at Long Branch Elementary and aerobics teacher at Gold’s Gym, said. “She’s a go-getter, very positive. She’s doing great.”
When Sarah first started getting stomachaches last spring, she didn’t think much of it.
“I’ve had GERD [gastroesophogeal reflux disease] since high school,” Sarah said. “I just thought I was overstressed and doing too much and I had another ulcer.”
When the pain didn’t go away, Sarah’s boyfriend, Carlton, made her see a doctor in Washington. The doctor ordered an ultrasound. That’s when Sarah first knew something was wrong.
“The tech was a really friendly, really nice guy named Steve,” she said. “He was looking at one side and everything seemed fine. Then he looked at the other side and his whole demeanor changed.”
The ultrasound showed an enlarged lymph node. Sarah was immediately scheduled for a CAT scan of her chest. She called her uncle, a doctor in D.C., and asked him to come with her. She didn’t call her parents yet. “I didn’t want to mess up anyone’s schedule,” she said.
After the CAT scan, Sarah’s uncle broke the news to her: “It looks like lymphoma,” he said.
“I broke down,” Sarah said. “I didn’t want to make the phone calls [to tell my family].”
As soon as they heard the news, Sarah’s parents got in the car and went to Rochester to pick up Rebecca. They then made the eight- to 10-hour drive to Washington.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s boyfriend stayed by her side while she had a needle biopsy, the results of which were inconclusive.
“I really started to process it then,” she said. “I was so glad he was there. [That first night] was the only night I cried the whole night.”
Sarah was scheduled for surgery to biopsy the mass and determine if it was indeed cancerous. It was here that she felt a guiding hand.
“The first surgeon I met with just made me really uncomfortable,” she said. “He really downplayed everything. I went back to my doctor and asked to see another surgeon.”
The surgeon she ended up with, Dr. Fred Finelli, was even more than what she had hoped for. Finelli, it turned out, had grown up in the house behind Sarah’s grandmother and knew her father and uncle. The serendipitous coincidence meant that Sarah was put on the fast track for surgery and treatment.
“They really jumped through hoops for me,” she said. “God really intervened.”
Once the surgeon determined that Sarah did have cancer, she had to leave school with just three weeks left in the semester. Her insurance company required that she be treated within the coverage area of Syracuse, so she had to pack up her apartment and come home. But she hopes to return to Washington by the middle of the summer.
“She’ll have her last treatment May 7 and 8,” Barb said. “Then she’ll have some more bloodwork. She hopes to be back in Washington by mid-June. She’s going to stay with relatives while she tries to find an apartment near school.”
Meanwhile, Sarah’s bills have been piling up.
“She’s had chemo every three weeks,” Barb said. “After the first few treatments, she bounced back within three or four days. She was even working part-time. But the last few, she hasn’t bounced back so easily. She’ll just start to feel better and it will be time for another treatment. So she hasn’t worked in six weeks or so.”
In addition to having no income and regular expenses like cell phone bills, Sarah’s insurance only covers 80 percent of her medical expenses.
“My husband works at National Grid, which has MVP,” Barb said. “It covers 80 percent, but with things like biopsies and surgeries, that doesn’t touch it. Plus she has to keep up with all of the other bills in her name.”
At the time of her diagnosis, a few of Sarah’s friends suggested that a benefit be held to help pay her bills.
“We said, ‘Oh, no, we don’t need that,'” Barb said. “But the bills just kept coming in.”
The benefit is doing more than raising money, said Tiffany Bloomingdale, Sarah’s best friend since high school and a senior at SUNY Geneseo. It’s also raising her spirits.
“The benefit is a good way for Sarah to focus her energy,” Tiffany said. “It’s good for her to have something to do.”
Sarah agreed. The former class president and prom organizer said that helping to organize the benefit has given her an outlet.
“I know I get overly involved,” she said. “I need to not do that anymore. But working on this has given me something to do.”
Sarah is lucky to have the support of many friends and family, as well as complete strangers.
“I’ve been talking to Melanie Burke’s mom,” Barb said. Melanie Burke is a Bishop Ludden seventh-grader from Liverpool undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. “They’re going to come to Sarah’s benefit on Sunday before they leave for Melanie’s last chemo treatment.”
Her friends, many of whom have known her since high school, will all be around for Sunday’s event.
“Sarah’s had this group of friends since high school,” Barb said. “Their parents are a central part of the committee putting this benefit together.”
Barb had especially high praise for Tiffany. “She has been the most phenomenal friend,” she said. “She’s been to every doctor’s appointment. She’s spent the night with Sarah. She’s been to some of her chemo treatments. She’s just been wonderful.”
“We’ve always made the most of our time together,” Tiffany said of her friendship with Sarah. “On my breaks from school, I would always go visit her. Last summer, we lived together in Washington — one of her friends got me an internship at NIH, and I got a waitressing job. Sarah was hostessing at Morton’s Steakhouse. That was really nice for us. She’s always saying she wishes we could just go back to the summer.”
Sunday’s benefit will feature a silent auction, raffled items and entertainment. Among the items to be auctioned off are a limited edition Carmelo Anthony autographed poster, a basketball signed by Jim Boheim and several items of New York Mets memorabilia provided by the team exclusively for Sarah.
“When I was hostessing at Morton’s they [the Mets] came in one night,” Sarah said. “I was talking to their manager and he got me a few tickets to their game against the Nationals. We were escorted in and everything. It was really great. When we were organizing the benefit, we gave him a call, and he said they would donate a bunch of stuff.”
Several elementary schools in the district are also donating baskets, and the annex staff is organizing its own fundraiser.
“A bunch of staff members have signed up to shave their heads,” Barb said. “The schools have been great.”
The high school is also allowing the Delaneys to hold the benefit there for free, something Sarah is very grateful for, given the amount of time she spent in the building in her teen years.
Sarah’s sister also organized a Relay for Life team at St. John Fisher, raising a total of $982 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
“I’ve just had unbelievable support,” Sarah said. “So many people have reached out and said they want to help. I’ve gotten support from complete strangers. It just brings a tear to your eye. This benefit is a perfect way for everyone to feel like they’re doing something for me — and they are. They’re really helping me out.”
Sarah’s Strength Benefit
When: 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday April 29
Where: Liverpool High School Cafeteria, 4338 Wetzel Road, Liverpool
Cost: $15 per person, $10 for children 12 and under
Includes food (baked ziti, salad, bread, beverage, coffee and dessert) and entertainment (DJ, piano player)
Checks can be made payable to Maureen’s Hope for Sarah’s Strength
For more information contact Lori Cavelli at 243-4550, Barb Delaney at 457-6383 or e-mail SarahsStrength@gmail.com.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.