Imagine being 13 years old, in middle school and being diagnosed with cancer. That’s what happened to Tulsan Ellie Rocco in July 2017.
After treatment at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Rocco continued chemotherapy at Saint Francis Children’s Hospital. There, Dr. Greg Kirkpatrick, a pediatric oncologist, suggested she enroll in Project ALL-Stars, a group he co-founded with Ken Randall, associate dean for the College of Allied Health at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
Project ALL-Stars’ primary purpose is to help children diagnosed with ALL and their families achieve optimal health and a sense of normalcy through fitness and wellness activities over a two- to three-year period of intensive chemotherapy. Children who are undergoing treatment for ALL experience weight gain, loss of strength and endurance, and an overall loss of energy and motivation to be active.
"The survival rate for ALL is between 90 and 95 percent, which is great, but still 5-10 percent short of what we want to see," Randall says.
If approved by their oncologists, patients can invite their friends to participate weekly in Project ALL-Stars activities: exercises that focus on strength, flexibility, balance and endurance through games, swimming and cooking sessions. The sessions occur at the Tandy YMCA.
With best friend Katie Musshafen encouraging her, Rocco has pursued challenging exercises, although both girls say the cooking class was their favorite.
Project ALL-Stars also helped Rocco meet other young people with ALL and has informed her future career. "When I was diagnosed, there were lots of places where my life was affected," she says. "After meeting some child life specialists, I decided that that was what I really wanted to do with my life."