Carissa’s battle with the big ‘C’

Megan Zakrzewski talks about how her friend Carissa hasn’t let cancer stop her from accomplishing all she can

carissa-280x400I was a shy 13-year-old girl on an overcrowded school bus, obligated to share the only seats available. Though I felt I was invisible to most people, Carissa looked beyond my bashfulness and, in just minutes, had me talking about tryouts and giggling over the cute players from the boys’ squad. By the time I hopped off the bus, I knew I had discovered a friend.

An inspiration to all

Everyone who knows Carissa has at least one of these stories of her kindness to tell. And even while battling cancer, she continues to provide inspirational tales that others can’t help but share.

Though at first she was hesitant to admit the difficulty of her struggles, Carissa eventually disclosed her diagnosis. The seemingly healthy 25-year-old shocked her family, friends and colleagues when they learned that doctors had detected cervical cancer in March of 2013. Within months, the cancer cells had spread to one of her ovaries, and by late October, a bone marrow biopsy and blood test revealed Stage 2 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Carissa looked toward her friends and family for motivation to keep on fighting, knowing they’d be by her side. Today, she finds devoting time and energy to others as the strongest way of coping with cancer.

A devoted teacher

She spent last year teaching six courses a day to high school students with behavioural issues in Roselle, N.J., she’s also acted as adviser to the school’s graduating class and coached its varsity girls’ basketball team through nearly a dozen games and countless practices. “Throughout all of her hardships, she’s been there for her basketball players and students,” says Amy, who met the vivacious brunette in elementary school.

In between all of her doctors’ appointments, surgeries and treatments, Carissa has served as a caring math and science teacher, devoted coach, loving friend and understanding role model to the students in her school.

Her students are a group of disadvantaged teenagers who seldom hear words of encouragement at home. They are often raised by one parent or an extended family member in dangerous neighbourhoods.

When not teaching, Carissa makes it her full-time job to love and support her students in their own parents’ absences. “I have to maintain my persona and be who I am. There are a lot of people in this world who count on me,” she says. Outside of the classroom, Carissa cheers her students on at award banquets, drives them to and from practices in the frigid winter months and provides everyday examples of respect.

Jamie, a friend to Carissa since age four, notes, “She is very spontaneous in her giving back, and no matter how hard things may seem she’s always smiling.”

Carissa with her friends
Carissa with her friends at a Rascal Flatts show at PNC Bank Arts Center, New Jersey.

Carissa beamed at the sight of her female students during graduation this past June, because many of them were the first in their families to graduate high school. They stood proud in the business-casual shirts and pants Carissa had donated to them earlier in the day. That moment, witnessing her impact on the students who shot smiles her way, made an entire school year filled with pain, fatigue and nausea, worthwhile for Carissa. “You’ve got to push yourself as much as you can because, in the long run, the things you enjoy in life are what keep you alive,” she says.

After undergoing a nerve-wracking 14-hour surgery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., Carissa pushed herself to return to school as quickly as possible. On her first day back, she was met in the hallways by students wearing teal ribbons in her honour. She smiled on the outside, but struggled internally to move on with a life she knew would never be the same. “I always knew in my heart I was strong enough to fight a battle, but my dream in life was to be a mom. When that was taken from me, that was the hardest thing to accept,” shares Carissa, who lost one ovary and the portion of her cervix showing cancerous cells.

She cried for days on her mother’s shoulder following the news from her doctors. “She’s the one woman in the world I know would take my place if she could,” says Carissa of her mom. “She always wants to be there and there’s nothing more important to me.”

Cancer won’t keep her down

Like her own mother, this same sense of caring lies within Carissa. An adopted parent to her students, she goes above and beyond to protect, nurture and comfort them. Her dream of having a child no longer a possibility, she’s found even greater reasons to fight cancer: the chance to raise a Maltese puppy named Niko, change the lives of a new group of students come September and make memories with the friends and family around her.

“She’s an incredible inspiration; her persistence, her perseverance,” says Jamie. “Even when she is completely down, Carissa always finds something to keep her a little above. She will overcome.”

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Megan Zakrzewski
Megan Zakrzewski is a communications specialist in education who holds more than four years of experience writing feature articles for online and print publications that focus on alumni connections, athletic communications, parent relations and more.