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Just for Jaimie: BHS plans early surprise commencement for an ailing senior

Jaimie Senger (right) poses for a graduation picture with childhood friend Jonathan Boller after a surprise graduation ceremony at Brainerd High School Wednesday. The ceremony, where Senger was the only graduate, was quickly planned by teachers and friends after Senger learned she might miss commencement to receive treatment for cancer. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)2 / 5
Senior Jennifer Jedlicka hugs Jamie Senger’s mother Carolyn Reller as they watch Senger during a special graduation ceremony Wednesday at Brainerd High School. The ceremony, where Senger was the only graduate, was quickly planned by teachers and friends after Senger learned she might miss commencement to receive treatment for cancer. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video) (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)3 / 5
Jaimie Senger (right) listens to a commencement speech during her surprise graduation ceremony at Brainerd High School Wednesday, as Cora Kuhl (left) and Senger’s mother Carolyn Reller reacts in the background. The ceremony, where Senger was the only graduate, was quickly planned by teachers and friends after Senger learned she might miss commencement to receive treatment for cancer. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)4 / 5
Jaimie Senger smiles during her surprise graduation ceremony at Brainerd High School Wednesday. The ceremony, where Senger was the only graduate, was quickly planned by teachers and friends after Senger learned she might miss commencement to receive treatment for cancer. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)5 / 5

There are common threads through graduation ceremonies each spring: the caps and gowns, the balloons, the band and the anticipation of what's to come next for graduates.

This Wednesday at Brainerd High School (BHS), the familiar notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" rang through the halls, although it was for no ordinary commencement. In front of dozens of teachers, friends and family, senior Jaimie Senger received her diploma a month early in a surprise ceremony just for her.

The ceremony was conceived of and planned in fewer than 24 hours, a special moment for Jaimie before beginning chemotherapy today for her second bout with cancer.

"At times in our world, we can complain about such small things that are uncomfortable, and we complain when things don't go our way," said Andrea Rusk, BHS principal, at the ceremony. "After knowing Jaimie a little bit here during her tenure at Brainerd High School, we should all look to be more like her as she fights, fights, fights to beat this ugly disease."

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The ceremony was conceived of and planned in fewer than 24 hours, a special moment for Jaimie before beginning chemotherapy today for her second bout with cancer.

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Seven months ago, 17-year-old Jaimie was just finishing her last treatment after living with acute lymphocytic leukemia since age 14. She shared her experience of a teenager living with cancer with the Brainerd Dispatch in Sept. 2014, looking forward to graduating on time after years of working hard to keep up with school work.

On Wednesday, she achieved that dream, albeit differently than she likely imagined. After experiencing declining health in recent weeks and learning of her diagnosis with a different type of leukemia last Friday, Jaimie vowed to hold out on treatment to attend graduation on June 5. Over the weekend, however, Jaimie and her family realized this would not be possible; Jaimie needs treatment now.

When BHS teacher Beth Bastian, who taught Jaimie both her sophomore and senior years, heard Jaimie's news, she said it "pulled at her heart strings." In a conversation with her husband Tuesday night, Bastian lamented the plight of her courageous student.

"I do have to give proper credit to my husband, because he's the one who said, 'Why can't you make it happen earlier?'" Bastian said. "I went, 'I think we could.' ... The idea came about 7 o'clock last night, and then we were pretty much done by 2:30."

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Carolyn Reller, Jaimie's mother, said she was honored people cared about her daughter so much.

"I was happy for her, because we don't know if she is going to be able to be at the graduation," Reller said. "I hope that she will, but just in case, it was so nice for the staff and her friends to think of her and want her to have a special moment, so that mean's so much to me."

Bastian was the commencement speaker at the ceremony, sharing what she feels sets Jaimie apart from her peers.

"You are an amazing young woman filled with dreams, determination, wisdom and enlightenment," Bastian said. "You are that person that wherever you go, no matter the weather, you always bring your very own sunshine."

That disposition and optimism remains, in spite of the challenges in front of her.

"It doesn't matter if I'm there on (June 5) anyways, because I got to do this," Jaimie said after the ceremony. "I know I'm going to be OK, but I'm still scared. I mean, who wouldn't be?"

For the next 30 days, Jaimie will undergo chemotherapy at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. After a 10-day break, she'll go back for another 30 days, after which she will go to the University of Minnesota Medical Center for a bone marrow transplant.

What Jaimie is experiencing is called "secondary cancer," not a relapse. She's been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer that develops within the blood cells in bone marrow. Those who've experienced childhood cancer are at an increased risk for secondary cancer, according to the nonprofit CureSearch for Children's Cancer, and certain chemotherapy drugs can increase the risk for AML.

"They tell you to possibly expect something in the future and she needs to be closely monitored, but you don't expect it this fast," Reller said.

Reller said she is trying to stay positive and is avoiding spending time online researching her daughter's cancer. The family is hoping Jaimie's younger brother Jared is a bone marrow match to his sister - there's a 25 percent chance among siblings of this occurring. If he isn't, Jaimie has no lack of other possible donors.

"People have rallied, they already said they would get tested," Reller said.

Everything Jaimie must face in the coming months seemed distant Wednesday when the teen, dressed in her cap and gown, walked to take her seat to thunderous applause. Tears streamed down her face, but she smiled brightly, beaming with pride and accomplishment like any ordinary graduate. Diploma in hand, she still plans to attend Central Lakes College to pursue a career in special education - just a year later than she had hoped.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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