It is the time of year when high school valedictorians pull on caps and gowns, and take podiums across the country.
As is customary, Gonzaga Prep’s speaker earned the honor, in part, through impressive academic achievement.
Over the years, 18-year-old Ella McKeirnan dreamed of standing before her classmates on the very day she would be handed her diploma.
“I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you today,” Ella said to a room full of classmates, teachers, family and friends. “Well, maybe I dreamed about it, but in my dream, I definitely had hair.”
While Ella may have lost her long, dark hair, she gained the kind of perspective generally untapped by someone her age.
“I stand before you today as living proof that life can hand you some major adversity that you never could have predicted,” said Ella.
Up until two months ago, Ella’s senior year was unfolding just as she had planned. A 4.0 GPA earned her acceptance letters to seven prestigious universities: Notre Dame, UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Washington, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Boston College and Gonzaga University.
Ella was a varsity soccer and tennis player when she noticed a cough. It was not alarming exactly, but naggingly persistent.
“Then I got back pain, so we went to the doctor. And we got some chest x-rays and they saw a bunch of masses,” said Ella.
Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, had worked its way into Ella’s lungs, her pelvis and her arms. She figured she would tackle the frightening diagnosis while juggling the demands on her waning senior year.
“I kind of thought I’d be able to go to school in between treatments,” said Ella.
It turns out, a weakened immune system and overwhelming pain would push Ella from her final two months of class. She spent those months at home or trudging the few blocks to the hospital to stay for days at a time.
“I’ve always been very optimistic about it. It’s obviously a very life threatening disease, but I mean, there’s nothing you can do but have faith. It’s going to be okay,” said Ella.
Maybe it is faith that carried Ella to her senior prom – and graduation – despite the fact doctors figured three rounds of chemo would sap too much strength. Maybe cancer is exactly the thing pulling a defiant Ella to take a seat behind the lectern at graduation.
“There is no argument that the class of 2017 is great at winning. But, how are we at losing?” Ella asked the crowd in front of her.
“Failure and losing and struggles, those are the things you actually have to fight through and those are the things that make you a better person and change you, and those are the things that take effort,” said Ella.
Ella has always given effort, but when she looks back, any adversity of the past looks miniscule through the prism of cancer.
“Before, I would have had a very different answer,” said Ella. “Looking ahead the next few months for me is kind of scary considering that I know it’s only going to get harder for me for the next few months. But, I know that beyond that I’m very excited for the rest of my life.”
Ella has handed cancer just one option: to take a hike.
Rough waters may life ahead for sure, and Ella will have to muster incredible strength to hold cancer to her ultimatum. But, Ella has the kind of emotional reserve anyone would do well to start socking away.
“I know that I am prepared to face whatever challenges await me, in large part, because of what I have learned at Gonzaga Prep,” said Ella.
Unlike her classmates, college for Ella will have to wait a year. She will choose attendance between the University of Notre Dame, University of Washington, UCLA, Gonzaga or UC Berkeley.
In the meantime, her immediate path is assured: from home to the hospital and back again.
“If you can deal with the hard times and you can push through those to get to the good times, that’s what really defines you,” said Ella.
At graduation, Ella reminded her fellow classmates they have to believe goodness always lies ahead. And, through this sickness and soon health, she will be there rooting for each and every one of them.
“Go forth and set the world on fire. I personally can’t wait to see it,” said Ella.
Follow along with Ella's fight here. You can also purchase blue and white "Team Ella" bracelets to support Community Cancer Fund. You can contact Ella's classmates Shawn Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Maddie West (email@example.com) to order a bracelet.
Two Gonzaga University basketball players reached out to Ella to send their best.