NEW PORT RICHEY — A local woman and her step-daughter are proving that cancer will not defeat them or their family.
Ashleigh Armstrong, 18, is dual enrolled at J.W. Mitchel High School, in Trinity, and Pasco-Hernando State College. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Also known as Hodgkin’s disease, this relatively rare cancer of the lymphatic system has come to be one of the easiest to treat and people with it have a high chance of recovery.
Still, cancer is cancer — especially to the people who have been diagnosed with it. So, Armstrong’s reaction to the news was disbelief.
The teen, however, was determined to not let it slow her down.
“When I heard the bad news I just couldn’t believe that it was happening to me,” she said. “You never think that you’re going to be the one that gets cancer, but it can happen to anybody.
“I remember thinking that I would do whatever I needed to do in order to get rid of this cancer. I wasn’t going to let it stop me from living my everyday life.”
Armstrong is not going through it alone. Not even two weeks before, her stepmother, Maria Ceparano, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. She is set to have a double mastectomy.
In Stage 3 breast cancer, malignant cells have migrated from the primary tumor and the surrounding area and could be in the lymph nodes but have not yet spread to other organs.
Like her stepdaughter, Ceperano was shocked by her diagnosis and experienced a range of emotions.
“My first thoughts were ‘no, not me. I want to be a Grandma one day,’ ” Ceparano said. “I cried every day for three weeks straight. I was sad, I was mad, I was angry.
“But I’ve never backed down from a fight and I wasn’t about to now.”
Armstrong lost her hair, a common side effect of many forms of cancer chemotherapy, but has continued to stay strong and confident about herself and how she looks. She says she wants to inspire and instill that confidence in other people that have been given the same news.
“Common feedback I receive from people is that I look beautiful without hair and to keep smiling, which really does motivate me to keep pushing forward with a smile on my face,” Armstrong said. “For others that have been diagnosed with cancer I want you to know that you are not alone! And your hair doesn’t define who you are so don’t be ashamed to sport the real you.
“Bald is beautiful.”
Not only do Ceperano and Armstrong have each to lean on for support, but the rest of their household have been right by their side, including Armstrong’s father Rob, as well as the other children in the blended family, Hailey Armstrong, 17, Ryan St. Denis, 11, and Justin St. Denis, 9.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Ceparano said, “and there’s a reason that Ashleigh and I are going through this at the same time. It’s definitely brought our family a whole lot closer.”
PHSC students and staff are also sharing their support for their fellow Bobcat with a fundraiser that will be held in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Think Pink, a volleyball game, will be held, 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct.10, at Pasco-Hernando State College West Campus, 10230 Ridge Road. The raised money will assist the family with medical bills.
PHSC President Timothy L. Beard is inspired by Armstrong and her ability to continue school and work despite her diagnosis.
"We are so very inspired by Ashleigh and her mother,” Beard said. “Ashleigh is not only a dual enrollment student who is balancing high school with college classes on our campus, but she works a part-time job. This young woman is an inspiration and we gladly stand with her and support her.”
In addition to the fundraiser, donations can also be made at www.gofundme.com/2zyapb-armstrong-family.