Humans of Staples

Phoebe Spear ’17 (right) grins while spending time with sister Hallie Spear ’18
Photo by Jackie Sussman ’17

Phoebe Spear ’17 (right) grins while spending time with sister Hallie Spear ’18 Photo by Jackie Sussman ’17

“This was something that I would have to deal with,” Phoebe Spear ’17 said with an upbeat tone, recalling her reaction to first being diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her right tibia.  As a bubbly 11-year-old in the fifth grade, Spear didn’t care if it was cancer or Osgood-Schlatter, an overuse injury of which she was originally misdiagnosed: all she wanted was to get back to dominating on the soccer field with her friends.

“I kinda didn’t know what a tumor was.  I was like ‘oh, ok’ and they were like ‘ok, you have cancer, we have to give you chemotherapy.’ And I was like, ‘whatever,’” Spear said nonchalantly, with a small smile on her face.

That rewarding feeling of winning a soccer game, however, would never return to Spear.  The most basic activities, like going out to eat or on a train, were soon prohibited for Spear to prevent her from inadvertently contracting an illness.  At the outset, it wasn’t having cancer that “bugged” Spear the most; rather, it was the complete abandonment of her normal routine.

“I did not cry when I found out when I had cancer,” Spear said. “I cried when my surgeon told me I would not be able to play soccer for a while.”

However, that view soon changed when Spear began the long and notorious chemotherapy treatment.  With a look of utter disgust, Spear bluntly described her experience being treated with the phrase “treatment sucks.”  Nevertheless, the “suck”-ey chemotherapy did not dampen her spirits.  Even the most noticeable part about chemical cancer treatment — the loss of hair — was not enough to break her optimistic, life-loving attitude.

“It ended up not being a big deal.  It was actually kind of nice; in the summer it’s bothersome to wash your hair,” Spear joked.  “When you first hear you have cancer you’re like ‘oh my gosh I’m going to lose my hair and be stuck in a hospital,’ but once you’re going through it, it’s all about ‘alright, I feel terrible, but who cares if I don’t have hair? I’ve just got to get through this.’”

According to World Cancer Today, 7.6 million people die from cancer each year.  Yet, the threat of death did not deter Spear from winning this fight with cancer.  “I never went to a place where I was like ‘I’m going to die.’ That can’t be a possibility in my life,” Spear said.  This emotional solidity, along with the idea that there was an end to this suffering, were some of the reasons why Spear was able to uphold a mature outlook on life at such a young age.

Though the cancer was more physically than emotionally taxing on Spear, this was not the case with her loved ones.  Throughout Spear’s many surgeries and treatments, sister Hallie Spear ’18, although not realizing the full magnitude of the situation since she was so little, was still very frightened.

“One of the hardest moments was when [Phoebe] once woke up in the middle of the night screaming,” Hallie said.  “I try not to remember this, because it makes me feel scared all over again.”

Though Spear faced many challenges while being treated, there were some moments that were wonderfully memorable.  During her chemotherapy, Spear watched “every TV show on Earth.”  Since one of her favorites was “Psych,” which starred James Roday as the hyper-observant Shawn Spencer who posed as a psychic, she applied to the Make-A-Wish foundation and asked to meet the entire cast for her wish.  “They flew us over to Vancouver, and we got to spend a day on the set with them and we celebrated one of their birthdays.  [Make-A-Wish] is amazing,” Spear said.

After her treatment, everything seemed to be going on an upswing.  Spear passed the twice-a-week check-up mark, then the once-a-week, then the once-every two weeks without anything going particularly wrong.  The same happened for the once-a-month period as well.

Then she got to the last check-up before the once-every-three-month period.

Up to that check-up, Spear’s mother had noticed her being lethargic, as Spear often fell asleep doing very simple things: reading, and even after taking a non-strenuous walk for an hour. When Spear’s doctor got the blood test results at the check-up, her white blood cell count looked abnormal, so they took another blood test and would get the results that Monday.

“They said I could have leukemia, but they didn’t know for sure.  My mom didn’t believe I had it, and told me it was just a cold that I had,” Spear said.

The instant Spear entered her check-up that Monday, her doctor didn’t hesitate to deliver the bad news: she had leukemia. “I was like, ‘what did I do wrong in life? Am I getting punished for something?’ I needed to leave that room,” Spear said, covering her face with her hands.  “I went outside to the waiting room and I started bawling in this woman’s arms; she was the mother of another child who also had cancer, and I was thinking in the back of my mind ‘why am I complaining to her about this?’”

The news of Spear’s leukemia diagnosis was just as difficult for her as it was for her close friends. Catherine Delaurentis ’17, a friend of Spear’s who supported her throughout this entire process, was petrified after Spear was diagnosed again with cancer.

“I was at a loss for words.  I don’t think I have ever felt worse in my entire life,” Delaurentis said.

This time around, Spear was frightened because she knew the horrible treatment process that was to come.  However, unlike before, she had the entire Westport community to support her.  “Everyone in Westport was coming, it was amazing.  It was the best feeling– that people really, really care about you and really want to support you.”

Delaurentis saw the entire community come together to support Spear as well.  “I would always send her messages and videos if I thought they would make her smile or laugh, and it wasn’t just me that would do this,” Delaurentis said.  “There were so many family, friends, teachers, or even people who barely knew her who would do anything to help out.”

Today, Spear is healthy and well, but this experience with cancer has shaped who she has become as a person.
“You learn to appreciate the little things in life and everything that you have,” Spear said. “You also want to start to give back because you are so lucky that you had a great life and you got so lucky to keep living and you want to help other kids have the same thing.”

Spear did just that as she established Phoebe’s Phriends, a non-profit organization whose mission is to find a cure for pediatric cancer, specifically osteosarcoma and pediatric leukemia.