What started out as a show of solidarity by a handful of teammates has turned into school-wide support for an Orem High student who is currently being treated for cancer.
By all accounts, senior Rachel Stratton, 17, is a well-known girl with a lot of friends who is considered a leader among her peers. She’s a member of the cross country and track teams and helped the Tigers earn a state title in track last May.
Camie Jacobs, an assistant coach for both teams, described those heady days this way.
“Rachel ran the 4x400 and also the 400 leg in the medley relay, so she ran the preliminaries and finals in each of those over the two days,” the coach said.
“She set a personal record in the 400, we won state, we got rings and we celebrated,” Jacobs added. “It was a fantastic experience for everybody.”
Then, in the third week of June, the cross country team reassembled to start summer workouts. Rachel struggled with fatigue right from the start, which in a month’s time turned into complete exhaustion.
First her blood was tested for anemia; then she was asked to keep a food journal. By then she was starting to have spells of dizziness, so the next theory was insufficient hydration. Her parents and doctor were stumped.
At the end of July, she attended Girls Camp with her church youth group and became very ill. She was taken to a cardiologist who cleared her heart, but she also reported some tingling in her arm.
That apparently set off some sort of red flag, Jacobs said. The next day she saw a neurologist and then had an MRI, which showed the probable cause of her difficulties: a brain tumor.
After receiving this news, the first place Rachel wanted to go was to see her coach, who had battled colon cancer just the year before.
“Her mother told me afterwards that she kept saying she had to talk to me,” Jacobs said. “When she got to our house, she was visibly upset, and soon blurted out the news.”
Rachel had turned to not only her coach but a trusted friend who she knew would understand how she felt. “She said she needed to know how to act, or how she was supposed to react to this news,” Jacobs said.
Things progressed very rapidly after that with the bewildering rounds of tests that always accompany a cancer diagnosis. In fairly short order, Rachel was accepted as a patient at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
There, the medical staff confirmed the diagnosis of brain stem glioma, which is usually seen only in boys under age 6. She’s undergoing residential treatment there involving both radiation and chemotherapy. Surgery is not an option for this type of tumor.
"The cousins of their next-door neighbor had a son at St. Jude's being treated for brain tumor," Jacobs said.
The news spread rapidly among her large circle of friends, and soon they began to show their support for her in a variety of ways.
First the cross country team began to write her name on their legs when they competed.
It was natural for the support to begin there. The Strattons are a running family. Older siblings Devin, Lauren and Heather are all former members of the team, and Rachel's twin sister Jordyn still is. Runners tend to be a close fraternity since they begin to compete and go to camps together long before high school.
Five members of the cross country team, including the coach’s daughter Sydney Jacobs, are also on the girls soccer team, so they started writing Rachel's name on their legs too.
Then some of Rachel’s friends on the football team began a tribute of their own.
“A few players started to write the initials RS on their arms,” explained senior linebacker Isaiah Fiso. “Then we started putting tape on our helmets. Coach (Jeremy) Hill is her neighbor and he got the stickers for us to put on our helmets instead.”
Fiso added that many players still write her name or initials on their arms or legs. One of those is senior quarterback Taylor Camp. “A lot of us know her,” he said. “It’s really easy to be her friend.”
Camp added that rallying for Rachel has been good for the entire team. “It gives us something else to play for, not only for the school but for her,” he said.
Cheerleader Abby Lee runs cross country and track as well and considers Rachel a close friend too. She and other members of the squad began to wear Rachel’s name in support also.
Volleyball player Lesa Mua said she and her teammates soon followed suit. “I would do anything for Rachel,” Mua said. “I really miss her.”
Tennis player Krista Larsen said her team joined the name-writing trend as well. “We want everyone to know that she’s someone we care about and that we remember her,” Larsen said. She has known Rachel since they were 12 and considers her one of her closest friends.
Once school was back in session, members of the cross country team who are also student body officers got the student council involved.
“We had lots of students sign little notes at lunchtime,” explained student council advisor Dom Riplogle. “They were invited to contribute whether they knew her or not, and our cardboard box was soon overflowing.”
At another time, a group with a video camera went around the school recording short messages. The edited compilation was then recorded on a DVD and sent to Rachel in Tennessee.
Most recently, Rachel was nominated for the Homecoming court and was eventually voted in as queen. Riplogle said the students erupted in cheers and applause when her name was announced.
School administrators were worried at first that even her nomination might seem like a pity party, Jacobs said, but the students soon convinced them it was anything but that.
“They told us there was so much that was out of their hands, but this one thing we can do as a whole student body to show her we love her,” the coach said.
The students interviewed all agreed that she probably would have been selected anyway, but the circumstances made it a tribute as well.
The cancer doctors urged Rachel to set goals as part of her treatment plan. One of them was to come home for Homecoming weekend last week, and she was able to do that.
She wasn’t quite up to attending the game or the dance, but sixth grader Mya Jacobs, the coach’s other daughter, accepted the crown and sash in her place and delivered it to her later that night. Her mother said Mya just adores Rachel and looks up to her, so she was thrilled to be her stand-in.
Rachel was able to spend time with Fiso, her Homecoming date, on Saturday before returning to the hospital the next day. He said she was very tired but was keeping a positive attitude. “She’s a fighter,” he added.
Now Rachel's story and the community's reaction to it has spread beyond her high school. Students at Scera Elementary have also sent cards to her, and other neighbors have been involved in various ways.
Jacobs said that Rachel has been both touched and encouraged by all this support and that it’s really helped her to stay strong emotionally.
“That’s really important,” the coach said. “Once the medication has knocked you down physically, it starts on you emotionally. You need all the help you can get.”
Jacobs’ own cancer is in full remission now, according to her latest scan just two weeks ago, but she said you never forget the ordeal.
In her case, the cancer had a genetic link and was found through a routine screening test recommended by her doctor as a preemptive measure.
Jacobs underwent major surgery and a long rehabilitation, but had the same kind of support from the school and larger community as Rachel has received.
Perhaps the sensitivity of the students was enhanced by another well-known cancer fight, that of Orem graduate Emily Austin, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6.
"She had three or four reoccurrences," Jacobs said. She also had set some goals for herself which she was able to fulfill.
"She wanted to go on the choir trip to California. She wanted to see her brother come home from mission, and to graduate from high school. She was able to do all those things," the coach said.
Emily passed away during the summer, but the impact she had is still being felt. "She is an amazing, amazing young lady," Jacobs said. "She never questioned why she got sick. She knew there had to be a reason."
Rachel has exhibited the same kind of faith. "She says this is really, really hard but that there has to be a reason behind it," Jacobs said. "She says we need to learn everything we can through this trial so that someone can be helped by this."
Camie's husband, track and cross country coach Andy Jacobs, said the most remarkable thing about all of these experiences has been the community’s embrace.
“If you’re going to get cancer, do it in Orem with some kind of activity connection,” he tells people.” “The support has been phenomenal.”
It included a 5K run fundraiser for Camie last year, and a similar event is being planned for Rachel after the cross country state meet this fall. Teammate Kyle Bunker said that many athletes and a lot of other students are planning to participate.
“We’re all a big family at Orem High; we take care of our own,” Replogle concluded.