With the stress of studying for the SATs, applying to college, competing for the upcoming team championship and fitting in with peers, high school can be overwhelming. Add fighting cancer to that list, an already overwhelmed teenager might crumble.
Constance Zotis, Woodland Drive, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2004, her junior year at Mt. Lebanon High School. “You are put at such a disadvantage,” says Zotis who recalls walking through the halls [at school] while she was fighting for her life: “You can tell kids are staring and talking behind your back about you, or about your hair getting shorter,” she says.” I would love to know how it (her diagnosis) got around school so fast… I used to joke that there was a secret edition of the school newspaper that came out.”
Now in remission for seven years, Zotis, who went on to receive her B.S. from Robert Morris University and is the events coordinator for St. Nicholas Cathedral in Oakland, also remembers the difference a strong support system made. Her sister, Vasso Zotis Paliouras, sat tirelessly with her through her chemo sessions and doctors’ appointments.
Paliouras was in turn inspired by her sister’s struggle. A chemical engineer by training, a wife and a mother of three, Paliouras wants to lend her heart full-time to other young people with cancer through a new nonprofit agency she has founded called, appropriately, Lending Hearts. This time, Constance Zotis is her sister’s support system.
Lending Heats provides peer support network for children ages 8-18 with cancer or in remission from cancer. Launched late last year, Lending Hearts offers social activities and outings to help young people with cancer find common ground while enjoying Pittsburgh’s cultural and recreational scene
The first event was a trip to the Pittsburgh Public Theater in December for teens 16 to 18 to see a performance of “Red.” Future events may include visits to various museums or dinners at restaurants, Paliouras said.
Lending Hearts connects with kids living with cancer through collaboration with Children’s Hospital, which sees 9,000 children and adolescents in its oncology department each year. Paliouras and her 18-member board will make Lending Hearts Programs available to young people all over the Pittsburgh region, supplementing programs that are already in place.
“We want to keep the kids feeling engaged and allow them to feel a sense of normalcy,” says Paliouras. And normalcy is important because cancer changes so much else about a teenager’s life, Zotis explains.
Mt. Lebanon School District regularly deals with students with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and has specific protocols for helping students. Still, Dean of Students Peter Berg says he has worked with many ill children who have stories of isolation similar to Zotis’s, “We work hard to provide students with the educational support that they need.” he says, “But, we, as a school district, fall short on the emotional and social support level. “It seems to me that the value of Lending Hearts is that it provides a social connection for students.”
Dr. Kim Ritchey, chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Children’s Hospital agrees that Lending Hearts enhances efforts already in place. “It is allowing the children to experience things that they might not (otherwise) have been able to do,” she says. “It won’t make up for time they lost while they were doing treatment, or fun that they weren’t able to have, but it will give them new opportunities.”