For as long as Sierra Wood can remember, she’s been a positive person.
“I think that’s just how I am,” she said.
And, it’s true. Wood, 18, a senior and Bangor High School’s 2018 La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort winner, is known through the halls and classrooms as one of the most positive people around. It’s notable because of everything she’s been through.
When she was 15, Wood was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkins Lymphoma, having felt a lump which her mom, Tammy, was insistent her daughter have checked out. There’s a family history of cancer.
“Stage four is basically the highest,” Wood said. “I know there is a stage five, and that’s not treatable.”
The cancer was around her heart and in her lungs, Wood said, and it was also in her neck. It was, as she came to understand, “of her lymph nodes.”
“So, everywhere,” she said.
A biopsy revealed the cancer, information Wood received over phone alone. Although she cried at first, she quickly summoned her reserve.
“I was pretty positive throughout it all, actually,” Wood said. “I think I was the one who kept my mom more in spirits.”
Joe Walter, Wood’s dad, has lived just outside La Crescent for 60 years, but Wood only moved in with him when she was almost 16. It’s closer to the hospital, they both said, and Walter has been able to help care for his daughter through what has been a difficult time.
“It just breaks your heart,” Walter said of the moment when he heard his daughter had cancer. “We probably took it a lot harder than she did. You’ve just got to hope and pray, and hope everything will be all right. You just never know.”
Wood has been diagnosed with the same cancer three times. She had chemotherapy at Gundersen Lutheran, then relapsed, and went through chemo again. She was supposed to have a stem cell transplant, but the cancer came back again, and she had to be in remission to go through the transplant. She went through radiation and then had the stem cell transplant in Madison in June 2017.
“I don’t remember barely any of it,” Wood said of the transplant, “I just remember it sucked.”
When she returned from Madison, Wood has so many restrictions and side effects, she couldn’t return to Bangor High School until January. She had throat and stomach sores, her immune system was compromised and she had to wear a mask everywhere, and even a simple act like showering exhausted her.
Throughout it all, Wood was in constant contact with her teachers, making sure she stayed on top of her school work.
Wood has been a model of inspiration for everyone at Bangor High School, said Steve Kurschner, the school’s counselor. She’s remained calm, composed and confident no matter what.
“How she handled herself in her time of uncertainty inspired those around her to not only choose to help in her battle but also better themselves,” Kurschner said. “We all go through ups and downs in our lives, but as we were able to witness Sierra overcome all of the treatments and hardships, we were reminded of the strength we have.”
To support Wood, he said, the school raised more than $5,000 through multiple fundraisers, including a night where staff members had their heads shaved by Sierra after a Bangor football game.
Although her treatments and recovery forced her to miss a year of school, he said, Wood’s work ethic was on display as she began taking online classes during the summer and first semester of her senior year to meet her graduation requirements.
Her wonderful personality, strength and perseverance prevailed, he said, and she was able to maintain her high level of academic standards as is planning to pursue a degree in health sciences and graduate on time in May.
“Sierra’s presence has made us all better versions of ourselves and will be a reminder of courage in our schools for many years to come,” Kurschner said. “As Sierra prepares to graduate, we all know that her life will continue to have a positive impact on all of those that are around her.”
Wood has had a lot of support from friends and family. Her boyfriend, Mitchell, not only went to a lot of her chemo treatments with her, but he also shaved his head in solidarity.
“He wanted me to be really positive, too,” she said.
“She’s always been a caring and loving person to everybody,” Walter said. “She’s a good example for everybody.”
Wood has been cancer-free since August.
She has also remained committed to her education, and she’d like to continue after high school and become a pediatric oncology nurse, largely due to her own experiences with the health care professionals who have helped during her journey.
“After everything I’ve been through, I know what they do,” Wood said, “and I like it.”
It’s just the kind of silver lining you’d expect a positive person like Wood to find. And, knowing her tenacity and bravery, there’s every reason to believe it will come true.