PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (WPRI) — Carrigan Nelson learned how to stay positive during a draining and frightening struggle from a friend who set quite an example of courage for countless people.
Long before the Portsmouth 18-year-old was picking out her prom dress and packing into a stretch limo with her friends, she did her best to help classmate Hannah Wertens.
Hannah died in August after a long battle with acute myeloid leukemia. It was the third time in her 15-year life she had been stricken with blood cancer.
“I remember visiting her at the hospital and she was connected to machines,” Carrigan recalled. “She was still positive.”
But as Carrigan helped with fundraisers for Hannah and other local causes, she couldn’t imagine she’d be wearing a wig to prom.
“Nope,” she said, smiling. “I never pictured in a million years that I’d be bald.”
Carrigan still had a blast for many of the usual reasons anyone enjoys a prom, and one not-so-standard, truly cheesy one.
“I was actually excited because there was cheese there,” she said, bringing laughter from her mom in the next room. “I had like 28 pieces of cheese.”
It was some surprising soreness that initially sent the teenager to the doctor.
Carrigan, an eight-time Tae Kwon Do gold medalist, felt an ache in her left leg while she was training.
She refused to believe the initial diagnosis that it was merely a sports injury.
“I told my mom it was cancer,” she said. “When it wouldn’t go away, I just knew it.”
Along with her parents, she pushed for more information, feeling her friend’s influence.
Then, four months ago, a baseball-sized tumor was discovered near Carrigan’s left knee and diagnosed as osteosarcoma—a rare type of bone cancer.
“My heart dropped,” she said. “I was actually in disbelief. My dad broke down. I’m still in shock.”
Her 60 days in the hospital included time in a room where Hannah was also treated.
And Carrigan felt her there.
“Things were kind of falling over in my room, like the door was opening and closing by itself, the curtain went up and back down,” she said. “It kind of just feels like she’s by my side, guiding me, saying, ‘you got this girl. I’ll be with you.'”
Carrigan and her mother Tammy credit what they learned from watching Hannah’s struggles with helping them know what to expect.
They say Hannah’s mother Deborah Kirchner has been extremely helpful and caring as well.
The community has also offered support, including the family of another young cancer patient from Portsmouth who died last month.
Ten-year-old Gabe Littlefield’s parents donated the remainder of a fund set up to defray his treatment costs to assist the Nelsons with their expenses.
As many in the Aquidneck Island community know, Hannah and Carrigan also shared a well-known passion for singing.
Hannah wowed the Fenway faithful last summer when she sang God Bless America during a seventh-inning stretch.
Carrigan has been singing since she was 12 and despite her current battle, she will perform the national anthem for an upcoming event to honor a local veteran.
“I am determined to stand up for that,” she said.
Carrigan’s goal moving forward is to honor her friend by raising awareness about the signs of childhood cancer and the importance of early detection.
“You have to listen to your intuition,” she said. “Even if it’s just nothing, you still want to be on the safe side.”
Hannah’s courage and positivity will be a foundation for her journey.
“So many people have it worse. Hannah had it a lot worse than me and she was able to stay positive,” Carrigan said. “I have a big chance to fight, and I just love life. Making me think how I could lose my life just makes me want to fight more.”
Carrigan’s treatment will include four more months of chemo—but she knows she won’t face it alone.