If she found a way to deal with this past year, Miriam Bender of Darby will probably be able to handle anything else life can throw at her.
For most young people, senior year of high school is supposed to be a joyous, exciting time spent with a close-knit group of friends that have spent 12 years growing up together and developing into adults. For Bender, things were a little more complicated than that.
On June 22 last summer, just months before the beginning of her senior year, Bender had surgery to try to fix a nagging pain in her back.
"I had a lump on my back," Bender explained. "After I woke up from surgery, they told me I had cancer."
Bender was diagnosed with a rare form of Ewing's Sarcoma. She needed to have two ribs and a muscle in her chest removed, and then she had to begin a regimen of both chemotherapy and radiation. While most kids spend their summer and fall during their final year of high school camping out and living a carefree life, Bender had to drive to Missoula five days a week to undergo radiation therapy as well as several chemotherapy treatments.
"The chemo is the hardest," Bender said. "Chemo makes your whole body terrible. It should have only taken seven months to treat the cancer, but it ended up taking eight or nine. There were a couple of delays."
Bender said she and her family would drive up to Missoula after school, get radiation treatment, stay at their pastor's house in a guest room, and then wake up early enough in the morning to grab a quick breakfast and make it back to Darby in time for her morning classes at 8 a.m. She would finish school, then go to tennis practice and hit the books for a few hours before starting the drive back to Missoula all over again.
Instead of hanging out with her friends and barbecuing, Bender sat in sterile hospital waiting rooms. Instead of feeding her horses, Bender had needles stuck in her arm and had to dress in hospital gowns.
Despite this grueling schedule, Bender found time to gain a 4.0 grade point average.
"There were times when I was just tired of it all," she said. "It was really frustrating for me. I complained a lot. Your final year of high school, when everything is supposed to be amazing, and I have to go get chemotherapy. It was pretty tough."
Bender, who is also a three-sport athlete for the Tigers, said she received a lot of support from friends and family.
"Everyone has been amazing," she said. "This last spring, I got tons of support from my tennis teammates and things like that."
During volleyball season in the fall, Bender's hair started to fall out because of the chemotherapy and she decided to wear a black bandana when she played. In a show of support, her classmates bought black bandanas to wear at Darby home games.
The weekend before last, Bender graduated as the Valedictorian of her senior class, along with Nicholas Kormanik III and Jake Lindquist. Two days later, she received her final radiation treatment. The medical professionals in her life are confident that Bender will defeat her cancer.
"Things are going good now," she said. "Now the doctors are just keeping an eye on it."
Bender received a MUS Honors scholarship to attend Montana State University this fall with a full tuition waiver for all four years. She plans to study pre-veterinary and equine sciences. She lives on a ranch with horses, and said she loves working with animals whenever she gets the chance.
She said despite the adversity she faced, she is proud of what she accomplished as a Darby High School student.
"I enjoyed my time there," she said. "Our classes were pretty good, especially if you take the higher end classes."
Despite all she's been through, Bender has kept a positive outlook on life. A few weeks ago she was laughing and joking around with her tennis teammates at the state tournament in Missoula, even after a tough loss. Anyone who has called her cellphone and gotten her voicemail knows she is fond of singing, and loudly.
Finally, Bender said that although dealing with a life-threatening disease has been far from a pleasant experience, it has allowed her to gain a new perspective on life.
"This past year taught me a lot about toughing through things and sticking with things," she said. "I feel like I can deal with anything now."
Reporter David Erickson can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.