By Elizabeth Johnson
MANATEE COUNTY – When Denise Walker talked in August with her students about participating in Relay for Life, it was just a community service project.
That all changed on March 24, when Crystal Robles, 18, was diagnosed with cancer.
“If it didn’t mean enough already, it does now,” said Walker, a patient care instructor at Manatee Technical Institute. “We’ve all been affected by cancer in some way, but this is my first student.”
Robles, a senior at Bayshore High School, began noticing impaired hearing in September. Doctors prescribed antibiotics for what appeared to be an ear infection. Later, she was sent to a specialist who drained the liquid from her ear. In December, Robles noticed a mass on her neck.
She went through numerous tests, and a biopsy of the mass confirmed it was cancer. The diagnosis was nothing new to the Robles’ family; her mother is an 18-year cancer survivor.
“When I was diagnosed that day, my whole family was there,” Robles said. “I started crying because my mom started crying.”
Robles has become the mascot for Team MTI-PCT 1, whose members are making shirts that read, “We walk for Crystal.” Robles will walk the caregiver and survivor laps for her mother at this weekend’s Relay for Life in Bradenton.
“To see the support they give me keeps me going,” Robles said. “I see what I have in life. Many people love me. It’s the little things.”
Walker has promised to provide in-home instruction for Robles. Classmate Samantha Thomas, who attends Lakewood Ranch High School, cut her hair with Robles on Thursday afternoon for Locks of Love.
“I’ve wanted to do it for years, but I never had someone to do it for until now,” Thomas said.
Robles, who had surgery Wednesday to insert a portacath for chemotherapy administration, begins treatment Monday.
“You can’t even tell she has cancer, she’s so positive about it,” said Katie Sotelo, a student at Central High School. “We’ll be crying and she’ll be the one laughing and smiling. We just want to give her the support she needs.”
“It’s brought us together,” added Marilu Mojica, who attends Palmetto High School.
The news hit even harder for those who knew Robles before the MTI classes began in August.
“To hear my best friend is going through this is really sad,” said Monica Ramos, who met Robles in math class their freshman year at Bayshore High School. “She’s trying to be positive, but there are times I can see in her eyes that she needs someone there.”
But Robles’ smile and optimism are contagious. She looks at the journey as a learning opportunity. The class will study medications and chemotherapy first-hand through Robles.
“Instead of being scared, I feel like I’m exploring myself,” Robles said. “I think it’s something to make me stronger.”
Robles plans to complete the paramedic program at MTI after graduating this year. She has qualified to compete in the state and national SkillsUSA competitions for first aid CPR.
“She’s got such compassion,” Walker said. “She went on Saturdays to do extra clinicals before 7 a.m., when most high school students would be sleeping.”
The MTI team, which was named the team to watch after last year’s event, expects to bring their donation total to at least $1,000. So far, the Bradenton Relay for Life has raised more than $100,000 this year.
“I have faith in God. With him, me being strong and all of the people motivating me, I’m going to keep going,” Robles said. “I’m a stubborn girl.”