Durham, N.C. — Autumn Wright began journaling when she was 13 years old – on June 9, 2011. She remembers the date because it was the same day her doctor told her she had cancer.
She put her “scary, sad, angry” feelings to paper and decided to make a bucket list of things she wanted to achieve with whatever amount of time she had left. The first item on her list – write a book about living with cancer. Her writing began with the journal.
“I was scared. Everybody was crying,” Autumn wrote on the day of her diagnosis. “I told them, ‘Please don’t treat me differently. I’m still the same person’ … It broke my heart to see so many of these people crying for me, but it felt good to know that so many of these people cared about me.”
Now 15, Autumn has been through chemotherapy twice while battling osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that attacks the bone and mostly affects teenagers. The cancer has taken her right leg, but not her spirit.
With the help of Duke University Hospital medical staff, Autumn joined three friends and two nurses for a three-day cruise to the Caribbean – another item on her bucket list. While there, she checked off two final items on her list – sing karaoke (she sang Alicia Key’s song, “Fallin’”) and climb a rock wall.
“It was an adrenaline rush. It was scary. I’m afraid of heights,” Autumn said of climbing the rock wall. “The biggest challenge was getting on the rock at first.”
Despite her fear and disadvantage of having one leg, she climbed to the top, about 200 feet up. Cheering her on was her nurse and good friend, Anna Wilkins, 23.
“Autumn is special in a lot of ways,” Wilkins said. “She just wants to be normal … She wants to hang out with her friends. She wants to be with her family. She just wants to live.”
Wilkins and Autumn have become close friends, even holding hands for support during their interview with WRAL News. Wilkins cried as she listened to her patient and friend talk about struggling with cancer.
“I do (cry a lot), but I’m OK with crying,” Wilkins said. “I cry usually in my car when I’m driving places.”
Wilkins was still in school training to be a pediatric nurse when she first met Autumn. The pair grew close and bonded after Wilkins persuaded Autumn to get out of her hospital bed and sit on a bench outside the hospital. There, the pair laughed and took pictures as they watched a squirrel steal food from a trash can.
“(Anna) has had a big impact on my life,” Autumn said, smiling at her friend. “I didn’t feel like she was a nurse. It felt like she was a friend.”
Oncologist Dr. Ray Barfield calls Wilkins “the magic ingredient” in Autumn’s treatment. Another key ingredient is faith, which Autumn credits for helping her through the difficult times.
“I pray that my cancer will go away. I pray that my family’s OK,” she said. “I pray that people see me for me.”
As of Monday, Autumn was back in the hospital battling pneumonia.