A teen faces the toughest challenge of her life by finding meaning in it all and taking solace in beauty.
By BRYAN K. CASANAS
Published June 22, 2004
[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Olivia Ceraolo, 15, played the violin for five years with the Pinellas Youth Symphony Philharmonia Orchestra. Chemotherapy and radiation have sidelined that love, as well as her passion for sailing, but "I believe this is why we have people that are struggling, to . . . remind everyone how sweet their life is, how beautiful it is."
CLEARWATER - Just three weeks before, Olivia Ceraolo had been sailing in a regatta in Austin, Texas.
Just a summer before, she had represented the United States in the North American Championship for the Optimist Dinghy Class in Bermuda.
That same summer, she had won first place in Sunsail's "Why I Will Always Sail" essay contest, and spent a week with her entire family in Antigua.
Olivia's life seemed "like a dream" until May 2003, when she went to the doctor complaining about back pain.
After a series of tests, she was diagnosed with chondroblastic osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer rare in adolescents.
Ceraolo, now 15, remained at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg for six months, where she received seven rounds of chemotherapy. After treatment there, doctors said the tumor in her pelvic region had shrunk by 80 percent.
In December, she went to Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she underwent radiation therapy for six weeks.
Sailing was sidelined because of weakness and difficulty walking caused by the chemotherapy and radiation. She is currently receiving physical and massage therapy.
Since the chemotherapy affected the amount of food that she eats, Olivia lost a lot of weight, at one point weighing only 86 pounds. Doctors have placed a feeding tube under her right collar bone to supplement her diet. She has gained about 15 pounds back.
In spite of her illness, the teenager takes refuge in writing poetry, which she calls her way of "putting words into actions." She recently won an award from the International Society of Poets for outstanding achievement in poetry.
Ceraolo writes to lift her spirits and to give other people hope. Through her writing, she urges people to live a happier, more meaningful life. Her positive outlook has inspired individuals and organizations alike, and the Clearwater community has rallied around her.
In June 2003, some of her friends at the Lansbrook Aquatic Club swam laps to raise money for her. In December, the Clearwater Community Sailing Center and the Clearwater Yacht Club, both of which she belonged to before her diagnosis, had a regatta to help pay for the family's trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to seek another opinion and develop a treatment plan.
In January, Jabil Circuit Co. in St. Petersburg provided a company jet for Olivia, her mother, Carla, and her aunt, Anita Hadley, to go to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors said she was not a candidate for surgery but for radiation, which she pursued at Shands.
On Sunday, the Italian American Club of Greater Clearwater, where Olivia's grandfather Dario Borselli had once been president, held a benefit ball in her honor. Part of the club's mission is to "to take interest in the youth of the community," president Joe Scolari said.
"It's overwhelming that so many friends ... want to help," Mrs. Ceraolo said.
All 250 tickets, at $25 apiece, were sold out three weeks before the ball.
The club still is accepting donations for Olivia and her family. The benefit ball's sole goal was to raise money to combat Olivia's disease, Scolari said.
The ball included a dinner, dancing and entertainment. The Italian Angels Motorcycle Brotherhood presented Olivia and her family with a $500 check. The club has raised about $9,000 for her so far.
"She's a brave young girl, and she has the will and determination to beat this thing and we would like to help her as much as we can," Scolari said.
Olivia draws on her faith for strength. "Your faith is everything; if you don't have faith, you really don't have much," she said.
She said she has received signs that have encouraged her to be positive. Around the time she was diagnosed, Olivia said her brother, Ian, found a string of crystal blue rosary beads on the road as he was skateboarding.
He gave them to his sister and, to her surprise, the rosary contained medals of people helping children.
"My first reaction (was), it was dropped from the sky. I think it's telling me I'm going to be okay," she said.
Mrs. Ceraolo said many people have given her daughter gifts intended to be inspirational, such as holy water from Lourdes. "That has kept her going," she said.
Olivia said her hero, bicyclist Lance Armstrong, has motivated her, too.
"He went through cancer as well and I read both of his books. I could really relate to the way he felt."
The Lance Armstrong Foundation, an advocacy group for people battling cancer, even sent Olivia three posters and an autographed picture of Armstrong.
The teenager said she isn't sure what the future holds. The uncertainty is the hardest thing about fighting cancer, she says.
"You don't really know what's going to happen, and it's sort of like you're playing a game almost," she said, adding good-humoredly, "it has been just ... like a science project."
Olivia will see the oncology team at Shands on Thursday to see where she stands after 10 rounds of chemotherapy and the radiation. Her parents, Paul and Carla, hope she won't need any more chemotherapy.
She is at home now, and completed the ninth grade through homeschooling.
During her stay at different hospitals, she made friends with other children, who, like her, have cancer and are fighting for their lives. Their stories have inspired her, she said.
"It was encouraging because there are kids who have been going through this for a few years and more than that," she said. "It's really amazing ... there's a 4-year-old that's been doing it for three years and that's all that kid knows, just being at the hospital."
Olivia holds fervently to the belief that there is a reason for her struggle. She said that she has noticed people living in three different states of being.
"One minute you just want to die ... the next minute you really want to live. Suddenly, you have a strange hunger for this sweet life that you possess."
The time in between she calls the "bubble zone."
"In this zone, you don't ever seem to get really happy or really sad about anything; you just live.
"I decided that the reason for my struggling was to pass this message along: A lot of people live in this bubble zone ... and they don't even realize it. I know this because I used to live like that, too, before my diagnosis of cancer. Now I am aware and I see all of the details.
"I believe this is why we have people that are struggling, to teach others this important message and remind everyone how sweet their life is, how beautiful it is."