In something close to his heart, Hilo High girls basketball coach Ben Pana decided to put a spotlight on leukemia, hoping to bring awareness to the blood-related cancer with his team’s first home game.
The Vikings (1-0) host Keaau (0-1) in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I game at 7:15 p.m. today at Kawananakoa Gym, welcoming back former Viking and cancer survivor Lexi Spence.
On Sept. 17, 2010, Spence was a Hilo sophomore when she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a disease that inhibits the growth of healthy blood cells. She received a bone-marrow transplant Jan. 26, 2011, in Portland.
Spence is in full remission and will be back to sing the national anthem. She’ll be accompanied by her father Dan Spence, who works for Hawaiian Springs water, and flies on weekends to Oahu where wife Elaine and the rest of the family live.
The Spence family saw their lives turned upside down again Nov. 8, 2011, when Angelina, then 13 years old and in the eighth grade at St. Joseph, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, cancer of the white blood cells that damage lymphocytes or the front-line soldiers of a body’s immune system.
She’s another Spence cancer survivor. Angelina completed her 2½-year chemotherapy treatment in March. She’s a sophomore at Mililani High, after being home-schooled last year.
Lexi graduated as a Mililani Trojan in May, but counts herself as a lifetime Hilo Viking. She’s set on attending Leeward Community College.
“I came back to Hilo High’s graduation to see a few of my friends,” Lexi said. “They graduated after me. I didn’t have school anymore. I saw the team when they came to states (on Oahu) and supported them.
“My health is good. I’ve been in remission almost three years. Before I liked basketball, hula and Tahitian dancing. I’m bummed that I can’t do that anymore.”
Sometimes, one of cancer treatment’s late effects, with all the immuno-suppressive medication (to allow donor cells to survive and develop), is avascular necrosis, a disease that puts a clamp on the blood supply to the bone. Lexi had a stress fracture and underwent surgery on her right knee late last year. Three months later, she had another knee surgery to clean out lingering problems. At least, she’s off her immuno-suppressive meds.
“How do I view life after getting cancer? I feel cancer made me appreciate life and all the people I love dearly, and also because it shaped me to be the person I am today,” Lexi said. “I’ve met some very strong, amazing, inspirational people who are like me and my sister — cancer survivors. “One of the things I hate though is seeing friends and family who had or have cancer suffer because I know how they feel. It’s given me a perspective on life, especially having my sister go through it, too, and seeing it from the other side.”
Angelina is taking ballet again and also enjoying a hip hop dance class. Youngest sister Danielle, a seventh-grader at Mililani middle school, is into Tahitian dance, hula and tennis. The oldest Spence sibling, Jordan, is attending Leeward Community College.
“Angelina is doing exceptionally well,” Dan Spence said. “Our plan is to come back to Hilo, but we don’t want to come back and keep going to the doctor on Oahu. Our thing is a Spence never gives up. We keep going.”
Hilo’s spotlight on leukemia awareness is also a tribute to Wade Ishibashi, the former Keaau boys basketball coach, who passed away Dec. 2, 2008. He was 42 and endured a 2½-year battle with leukemia.
When he was the Cougars coach, one of his assistants was Pana.
“I made my 10th year as coach,” Pana said. “I started with Wade in 2003. I was hoping we could play Keaau in our home opener. But I wanted to honor him, and leukemia survivors, especially Lexi. Coaching with him, I wanted to help kids set life-long goals, try to carry on that discipline and structure, and his passion for the game and the kids.
“I spoke to Lexi two weeks ago. I know she likes to swing and wanted her to come back to Hilo, especially for this game. It’s something special to me. When Lexi found out she had cancer, it was her sophomore season, and that team was a close group. We started to honor her back then, and we’ve kept her in mind with our program.”