By Ann Needle
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. –
It seems trite to say 19-year-old Leah Tepper lost her battle with cancer last Thursday morning. As someone whose illness led to becoming an often-public advocate for those working to wipe away the disease, Leah also became the writer who left behind a lesson of how to weather the incomprehensible with determination, dry humor, and some artfully crafted prose.
Leah leaves behind her parents, Ken and Tina, her siblings Rachel, Alex and Nick, and a host of extended family and friends.
At age 17, Leah was diagnosed with adrenal cancer in the spring of 2010, a rare and aggressive condition with a slim chance of successful treatment. This started a journey for Leah and her family through “14 surgeries, two 30-day radiation treatments, and four different chemotherapy regiments,” dad Ken summarized briefly. And there were the other lengthy stays for pain management and side effects.
This intensive treatment brought the Teppers to Children’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute — and even the University of Michigan, which houses some of the country’s leading adrenal cancer experts. “In the last 2-1/2 years, I’d say we spent about 50% of the time in the hospital,” Ken estimated.
As a result of these aggressive treatments, mom Tina said, “She lost a kidney, she lost an adrenal gland, her eyesight was permanently weakened.”
Despite extensive time away from her senior year at Nashoba High, at-home tutoring and teacher support helped Leah earn her diploma with the
rest of her class.
“Her friends at Nashoba were amazing with her,” doing whatever it took to help her stay connected with school, said Tina.
At graduation, pictured above, Leah was spurred on by a standing ovation from classmates. “She was so awed to be walking at graduation that she started to walk right past me as I went to hand her diploma to her,” recalled School Committee Member Maureen Busch.
Leah even spent fall 2011 as a freshman at Quinnipiac (CT) University. She wrote her college application essay in the ICU. But Leah came home permanently around Thanksgiving, when it became evident the cancer was growing again, said Ken.
Back in December 2010, Leah started her Internet blog, “Keeping Up with the Cancerous”, with entries such as “Instructions: Microwave Until Properly Radiated” (her description of radiation).
In her final entry, on October 9, Leah announced that her treatment options were about to run dry and her team was focusing on “pain management.” At the same time, Leah told readers she wanted to get off narcotics and start another clinical trial. Still, a master of subtlety, Leah wrote, “ I already feel better from the pain meds, but I am stressed to be back in the hospital and dependent on other people…It’s also stressful to be out of treatment options.”
But giving up wasn’t on Leah’s agenda. According to Ken, when the medical team recently gathered to tell Leah that treatments had failed, “Leah’s attitude was that she was not leaving, she didn’t want to leave.” Pausing before he continued, Ken added, “ She almost threw one of the doctors off the team. Told her, ‘You can leave the room now.’”
While penning her blog descriptions of radiation, clinical trials, nausea, and hair loss, Leah slipped into the role of public advocate for cancer research. It lead to a front-page photo of her in a Sunday edition of The Boston Globe, and a featured interview with WEEI’s Joe Castigione at last summer’s Jimmy Fund Radio & Telethon (http://audio.weei.com/a/
Her passing triggered a host of comments on social media network Twitter.com from local celebrities such as Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia, whom she had met at a Jimmy Fund event last year.
Leah’s Lasting Impression
“I know this is cliche stuff, but she was always smiling, so optimistic,” Ken reminisced.
That genuine charisma seemed to help spur others to action. Tepper neighbor Noelle Aylward described the small army of volunteers bringing the family dinners and snacks and collecting books on tape for Leah to enjoy.
But there was also an entertainingly mischievous edge to Leah.
Photographer Drea Catalano once asked a hospitalized Leah what she needed. She asked Catalano and another friend to dress as clowns and come in to Children’s Hospital. Catalano readily obliged, and was greeted by a can of Silly String sprayed in his face by a 10-year-old patient— coaxed by Leah. “I would have done anything for Leah,” said Catalano after learning of her passing.
Ken reminisced about Leah’s antics shortly after a 2011 surgery before her Nashoba graduation. Told not to get the incision site wet, Leah bounced into the “dunk tank” at Senior Field Day anyway. She told Ken about it, asking him to keep it from her mom. But when then- Principal Jeremy Roche presented Leah with the school’s Medal of Courage award at the Senior Awards ceremony, Roche remarked that she had even participated in the dunk tank on Field Day.
“When she was home, she wanted to live a normal life,” Tina said. “Her biggest disappointment was she couldn’t drive the boys [her brothers] to school, like [older sister] Rachel did for her.”
In planning for Leah’s services, Tina and Ken sensed the extraordinary impact of her “normal” life. Tina pointed out that the family chose their parish of St. Isidore’s for her wake/vigil on Monday, thinking that a regular funeral home would be a tight fit. They were quite right; the church was packed. Similarly, they chose to have Tuesday’s funeral at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Acton, because of its substantially bigger size compared to St. Isidore.
At the funeral Mass, Ken’s memories of Leah pointed to the mark she left behind. The evidence was seen in the hundreds of people in attendance at the mass and subsequent burial in Brookside Cemetery.
The fact that Leah passed away on November 1, a day celebrated by many as a time to remember the deceased and the extraordinary (All Saints Day), has not been lost on her mom.
“And she was born on Mother’s Day,” Tina noted. “I really believe those were signs that she was a very special gift.”
Donations in Leah’s name may be made to Children’s Hospital, 300 Longwood Ave. Boston, MA, 02115