Craig student battles through cancer to graduate

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Thursday, June 10, 2010
— The future is uncertain for all students as they pick up their diplomas this year. It’s especially so for Lora Schansberg.

Schansberg suffers from a rare cancer that could kill her. She’s been out of school as much as she’s been in school for the past 18 months. And yet, she earned enough credits to graduate with her class on Wednesday.

She also was voted “best laugh” for the Craig Class of 2010 yearbook and found the energy along the way to be a volunteer soccer coach.

Soccer was a constant through Schansberg’s youth. She made varsity her freshman year at Craig, but disaster struck the fall of her junior year.

She got pneumonia, doctors said. The breathing got better after three courses of antibiotics, but she had lingering body aches.

Then on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, she doubled over in pain. She went to Mercy Health System’s urgent care, where the emergency medicine specialist made a remarkable catch.

Maybe, the doctor said, she has polycythemia vera, or PCV, a rare blood cancer typically found in heavy smoking 60-year-old men. American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison had never seen a juvenile case, but that’s what it was.

Schansberg missed more than three months of school. When she returned, it was for only three hours a day. The school district assigned a teacher to tutor her at home. Craig teachers helped, too.

By the end of her junior year, Schansberg had caught up with her studies. She also had enough energy to be an assistant coach for the varsity soccer team.

The biggest risk with PCV is blood clotting, so Schansberg must make sure she drinks a lot of water, takes blood-thinning aspirin and gets weekly blood tests. There’s also a risk PCV could evolve into a form of leukemia.

A doctor told her that “with luck” she should live a normal life and go to college and get on as best she can.

Her friends know how serious things are, “but we just try not to talk about it,” she said.

PCV is one of two conditions Schansberg suffers from. The other is called pseudotumor cerebri, a buildup of fluid in her brain. She gets headaches every day and sometimes vision problems. Sitting in a desk is difficult. Concentrating is hard. Sometimes she had to get up and go home.

She’s had more than 10 surgeries. A shunt drains the fluid, but it has become infected.

Medication that might help the pseudotumor can’t be used because they would make the PCV worse, she said. She has pain and sleep medications, but she hates taking them and avoids them when she can.

“She is self motivated, and she never complains,” teacher Amy Cossette said. “You can just tell she’s in pain, yet she just continues to keep on going where some other student might not have that motivation.”

Cossette said Schansberg possesses a maturity rare in students her age.

“I don’t know how she’s done it, to be honest with you,” said her counselor, Lisa Winzenz. “It’s amazing to me that she’s kept up as well as she has.”

Family support helps. In her corner all the way are her father, Dave Schansberg, who is advertising director for Blaine Supply, and her mother, Mary Kay Vukovich, who works with at-risk children for Rock County.

Her sense of humor seems to help, too. She wore a smile and a “cancer sucks” T-shirt when interviewed by the Gazette.

Schansberg continued to miss school her senior year.

“It’s very, very difficult. There’s never a point where I’m caught up,” she said. “I’m always behind.”

Nevertheless, she kept her grade-point average over 3.0 and won a Herb Kohl Initiative Scholarship, which recognizes students who have demonstrated motivation, promise of succeeding in college and who have overcome significant personal obstacles.

Schansberg knows her illness could shorten her life, but she prefers to be optimistic.

“I’ve never given up or lost hope, really,” she said. “I want to achieve everything I can while I’m here.”

Her doctor at the Mayo Clinic is trying to develop a cure, but that could take years.

“You never know,” she said. “Anything can happen.”

Schansberg is headed to college. Her career goal is to work where she’s spent so much time lately. She wants to be a pediatric oncology nurse practitioner. She’ll probably attend UW-Rock County before transferring to a four-year school.

“I love kids, and I feel I would be good at empathizing with them, knowing what they’re going through,” she said.

Asked if she can work in a place where children die, she did not hesitate. She can handle it, she said, “because I am living it.”

Last updated: 2:07 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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