Graduation is a special triumph

Since Sarah Cohen was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer six years ago, she often has been given little chance of survival by doctors.

They underestimated her spirit and determination.

Sarah defied the odds to collect an honorary diploma Sunday when her Class of 2009 graduated from Carmel High School at the Pepsi Coliseum in Indianapolis.

“I never thought I’d make it to my 16th birthday,” Cohen said. “I made it to that. I never thought I’d make it to my 18th birthday, and I made it to that a few months ago. Then I made it to graduation, something I never thought I would see. It was truly a miracle to me.”

Cohen, who turned 18 on March 29, worked hard to keep up with studies despite health setbacks because of her Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare disease where cancer cells are found in the bone or soft tissue.

She missed more than a year of school because of a stem cell transplant in November 2006.

In May 2008, Cohen had surgery to remove a brain tumor. Not all of the tumor could be removed, and she had therapy last fall to help shrink the remaining parts of it.

Cohen returned to the high school in January for a short time, but physically she didn’t have the strength to walk to classes and was in too much pain from her radiation treatment to sit the whole day.

So Carmel officials set up Cohen with an online program to complete her studies. But her memory hasn’t been the same since the brain tumor, her mother said.

“It became apparent within a month, she couldn’t retain the material,” Barb Cohen said.

Barb Cohen asked if there were any way they could make the graduation happen.

“Principal John Williams has said you don’t get an education from books all the time. Sometimes it’s life’s education,” Barb said.

Sarah and her family — Barb Cohen’s husband, James, is a rheumatologist and son Ben is a Butler University senior — were touched deeply by the act of kindness.

“I really couldn’t believe it was happening,” Sarah said. “I was almost in tears when Principal John Williams gave me the envelope for the diploma. He really has done so much to help me as did my counselor, Bettina Cool.”

Cool said Sarah was close to graduating, perhaps just a semester behind.

“She worked hard and accomplished a great deal, even through all she’s been through,” Cool said. “She continues to have an incredibly positive attitude.”

One day at a time

Naturally, when the traditional graduation march “Pomp and Circumstance” began to play, her mother’s tears began to flow.

“I had to tell my daughter when she was 14 that doctors didn’t think she would last longer than eight months,” Barb said. “This is something we dreamed of, but realistically never thought would happen.”

Sarah has had all the chemotherapy and radiation therapy deemed prudent. Barb Cohen said all that is left is for Sarah to keep trying the experimental treatment.

“She doesn’t have any other options open to her,” she said. “We really live, and we have for the last six years, from scan to scan” for cancer cells.

The next scan is set for July.

Since she was first diagnosed with cancer, Sarah has made beaded jewelry to donate and sell at Sarah Michelle’s Designs at, an online group of sellers of homemade goods. Items on the Web site this week ranged from $5 to $80.

Sarah said she plans to donate 25 percent of her profits from the beaded and sterling silver jewelry sales to Riley Hospital for Children in Downtown Indianapolis, to buy the children toys.

Plus, each time she goes for a treatment at Riley, she brings a bracelet to give a newly diagnosed cancer patient.

“Riley is amazingly important to me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here without Riley.”

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