For Maple Grove Senior High student Zoe Darling, her senior year has been anything but easy.
For most of the school year, Zoe has been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Zoe’s mother Barb Darling recalls finding her daughter asleep, homework and laptop open beside her, on the bedroom floor after school in September 2011. She figured it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“This did happen frequently, but I thought with all the late nights at the dance studio and early morning starts for school, this was just a typical teenager’s need for sleep,” Barb wrote in an e-mail interview with Patch.
To be sure, 17-year-old Zoe had her blood and thyroid checked last fall and the results were normal. Weeks later, she woke up with sore shoulder and noticed a lump on the lower left side of her neck.
“We made an appointment and the doctor suspected the swollen spot on her neck was a lymph node,” Barb wrote, stating an ultrasound was done. “On Dec. 21, 2011, it was discovered she had a prominent 3cm lymph node on her neck.”
The next day Zoe visited an ear, nose and throat specialist, who did a small biopsy and sent her for a chest x-ray and CT scan. The scan revealed more enlarged nodes in her neck and chest.
“The biopsy tissue was inconclusive, so Zoe was then scheduled for an open biopsy surgery on Jan. 3, 2012,” Barb wrote. “The next day it was confirmed, she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
From there, Zoe was referred to the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis where it was also “discovered that Zoe had a mass the size of her fist resting between her heart and lungs,” according to Barb.
Since being diagnosed, Zoe has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy, numerous doctor visits and medications. The impact of the treatment took its toll on Zoe – resulting in weakness, hair loss, bone pain, sleeplessness, nausea and fatigue, which also included missing school and making up school work.
In the midst of the treatments, Zoe’s senior contacted the Darling family and asked if Zoe would be interested in doing a photo shoot. Ehlers wanted to capture what Zoe was going through, giving her something to look back on in the future. The shoot could also help with a CaringBridge fundraiser.
“Only a few hours before the shoot was to take place and two days before her third round of chemo, Zoe agreed,” Barb said. “She agreed only because the photos may be used for a fundraiser to help CaringBridge, and because we are huge fans of this site that helps so many communicate with loved ones during such a challenging time.”
Photos of Zoe were then released on Maris Ehlers Photography's blog, two other blogs and Facebook.
The Photo Shoot
The response to the photos, Barb wrote, has been “amazing” and touched people worldwide.
“The impact has been very positive for Zoe as well. She is a very humble girl and doesn't like to be the center of attention, however, these photos have given her a sense of confidence because of all the praise and support that has come from them,” Barb said.
Ehlers wanted to capture Zoe's strength, and offer a point for memory.
“When it worked out that Zoe was willing to let me photograph her as she is today, in the middle of treatment, I was literally thrilled. Not because I wanted to push Zoe beyond her comfort zone (I imagine she's had more than enough of that of late), but because I wanted to create an opportunity for her to embrace the being that she is today - just as she is right in this moment,” Ehlers said in her Feb. 27 blog.
“What I want for Zoe, whether it be now, tomorrow, in a few days when she feels terrible due to her treatment or many years from now when she is living a happy and full life, that she will be able to look back at this moment and recognize her true strength and beauty, as the rest of us see it,” Ehlers wrote.
Support throughout treatment has come in multiple forms for Zoe and the Darling family during her senior year.
Senior students and staff at Maple Grove Senior High wore purple at this year’s Sno-Daze Pepfest in honor of Zoe’s favorite color. Being nominated earlier for Sno-Daze royalty, students chanted her name as she came into the gym during the pepfest.
“It was so powerful and uplifting to witness and hear after all Zoe was going through,” Barb wrote.
– just two hours before checking into the hospital for her second round of chemotherapy.
Throughout the year, the class of 2012 along with community continued to offer support with efforts with messages of encouragement, booster club fundraisers and more. A friend of Zoe's sister Rachel started “Stay Strong Zoe” bracelets which were also sold at the high school.
Support has also flowed in from the Maple Grove community, from neighbors providing help with everyday chores, sending cards, letters, providing meals and rides, offering ongoing encouragement and more.
“When news of Zoe's diagnosis came out, a couple of our neighbors shone a blue light from their porch to let us know that they would be there for us anytime of night,” Barb wrote. “Now there are blue lights lining our entire neighborhood as well as some in other Minnesota communities, we have received notices and pictures of blue lights from homes across the U.S., Canada, some in Europe, Japan and Australia.”
“People in our community are amazing. We moved here from Canada and had only lived here in Maple Grove for just over three years and our friends and neighbors have embraced us as they would their own families,” Barb wrote. “We are so very grateful for their kindness and generosity.”
Seven women formed a team for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society's June 3 half and full Marathon in Minneapolis, naming themselves “Team Blue” in honor of Zoe.
“Zoe has been so blessed with all the support, she felt the need to ‘pay it forward’ somehow,” Barb wrote, stating Zoe recently became aware of a family that has a young boy dealing with Leukemia, “so she decided to share some of her blessings.”
As the end to her senior year approaches quickly, the Darling family awaits the results of recent tests to reveal whether Zoe’s cancer is gone.
Despite missing 36 days of school during her senior year, Zoe will graduate as part of the Maple Grove Senior High Class of 2012 and is currently registered to start in the fall at The College of Saint Benedict.