PASCO -- McKenzi Fish talks about her illness in defiant tones. The diagnosis she received three months ago doesn't seem to frighten her.
Only one thought cracks her optimistic demeanor.
"Losing my hair -- that's the only bad part about all this," Fish, 15, said. "I don't care about being hooked up to an IV all day, but I don't want to lose my hair."
The way she talks about her life, it is clear the Pasco teen would just put on a wig and keep dancing should her straight brown hair fall prey to chemotherapy.
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Rather than ask for the support of friends and family, the Chiawana High sophomore has given strength to those around her since she was diagnosed with cancer late this summer.
In mid-July, McKenzi noticed two lumps on her neck. She first thought nothing of it, as she had her wisdom teeth taken out shortly before.
"It didn't hurt," she cheerfully said. "I'd play with them all the time."
But the lumps didn't go away.
The family physician was not as carefree about the lumps as she was, though, so McKenzi underwent a series of tests and scans at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center.
She was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma in late September. By then, McKenzi wasn't surprised.
"For some reason, I already knew," she said. "I just felt like it must be cancer."
Specialists in Kennewick sent her to Seattle Children's Hospital for chemotherapy. McKenzi decided to maintain her composure against the drugs' side effects.
"I told myself I wouldn't have any reactions to the chemo," she said. "And I didn't."
Treatment in Seattle
McKenzi and her mother, Tamy Fish, headed to Seattle in late October for two weeks of treatment. Two lymph nodes next to her left clavicle were removed and surgeons implanted a catheter into her chest to ease the chemotherapy process.
What she saw at the large children's hospital made her even more resolved that she wasn't going to ask for special treatment from friends and family.
"It was so sad to see the little kids that were sick," McKenzi said.
She shared a room with a little boy from Montana.
"That little boy had been there for four months," she said. "My two-week (stay) was nothing."
Mother and daughter will return to Seattle every three weeks until at least January for more rounds of chemo.
Friends and family
McKenzi's fortitude has bolstered those close to her.
"It was very hard at first," Tamy McKenzi said. "We've had our moments of crying, but seeing her positive attitude and her strength has made it easier for me."
When mother and daughter returned to Pasco in early November, McKenzi's classmates crowded around her. Everyone wanted to know where she had been those two weeks before.
Though there was little time before class that day, McKenzi told the students everything she could about her illness.
"I wanted them to hear it from me," she said. "I didn't want some crazy big rumor going around, like I'm going to die in a few months."
Several of the students cried during that class, and McKenzi said she couldn't make it very far without someone giving her a hug in the hall for days.
McKenzi started taking dance classes at age 3. A few years later, she encountered the woman who remains her mentor to this day.
That woman, Darlene Mercer, said it was hard hearing the news about McKenzi.
"It felt like a brick had hit me," Mercer said.
Mercer now is the head coach for the Chiawana High dance team and has taught Fish dance for the past seven years.
Chiawana's dance team is in its first year. Team members perform during half-time at football games and plan to do so at basketball games this winter.
McKenzi said she wanted to go back to dancing with the team when she returned from chemo, but Mercer told her to take some time off. Once she allowed her back at practice, Mercer limited McKenzi's dance time, which took some effort.
"She won't sit herself down," the coach said.
McKenzi's illness has changed her fellow dancers. They are choosing compassion over vanity, and the girls have decided to not to let McKenzi stick out during winter performances.
Inside the basketball gym, McKenzi's immune system, which will be weakened by the chemo she will continue to receive, is at risk when she's breathing heavily under the strain of dancing.
So the girls on the dance team decided they will wear surgical facemasks as they perform together this winter.
McKenzi's illness has positively affected the team in other ways too, Mercer said.
"I've seen less cliquey-ness and more togetherness," she said. "The girls are checking in on her -- they're like little mothers."
While McKenzi was gone, her team organized a benefit for her: Dancers for Cancer. They collected $1,300.
McKenzi promptly gave a third of that money to the local cancer center.
"She's touched a lot of people's lives," Mercer said.