Just hours before their junior prom last month, Emily Cereola and Deanna DiRico arrived at Rachel Ragone’s Manorville home, begging her to join them.
Emily’s mother, Debbie, and Deanna’s mother, Darlene, brought 20 dresses for Rachel to try on. They were joined by Dorian Reutter and her daughter, Leighann, who is also a friend of Rachel. Ms. Cereola then ran to Designer Shoe Warehouse in Riverhead at the last minute, where she found the perfect pair of silver shoes to go with Rachel’s dress.
Just a few months earlier, Rachel was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in the bone or soft tissue, and between all the hospital stays and doctors appointments, she hadn’t even considered attending the prom. But with the help and support of her friends, she went—with just an hour to get ready, after her history lesson—dressed in a stunning blue gown, a white rose corsage on her wrist.
It was just one example of how the community has helped support Rachel and her family since her diagnosis this winter, her parents, Kim and John Ragone, said last week. Rachel also has a brother, Andrew, who is 22.
“We’re blown away by the whole community,” Ms. Ragone said. “They restore your faith in humanity. They really do.”
Rachel, 17, is a junior at the Eastport South Manor Junior-Senior High School, and an avid tennis player with a love for shopping. She noticed a large lump on her arm on February 3—Super Bowl Sunday—and after numerous doctors appointments over about five weeks, was diagnosed.
Ewing’s sarcoma affects about 250 children and young adults each year in the United States, and the cause is not fully understood. The most common symptoms are pain around the site of the tumor, swelling and fever. The disease can be fatal if left untreated.
She is in the third month of 12 months of chemotherapy, which involves three-day, one-day and five-day stays at the hospital, followed by a week of rest. She has a surgery scheduled for later this month to remove the tumor, and will then undergo radiation treatment.
To keep up with her rigorous classwork and maintain her top-notch grades, a difficult task given her schedule and absence from school, she is tutored throughout the week, two hours per subject.
But Rachel said her spirits are brightened by spending time with her friends, which she is able to do frequently. She and Betsy Spellman, who have been in the same classes for 10 years, are reading the “Harry Potter” series—again, Betsy added with a smile.
And each day letters arrive for her, sometimes in batches, from her friends and other students in the school district, an effort organized by a few teachers to show that she is in their thoughts. She said she enjoys reading them when she isn’t feeling well, especially those from the little children at the elementary schools.
Ms. Ragone added that she bought a tub to store them in because Rachel insists on keeping each one.
Friends, family and community members gathered at the Center Moriches Free Public Library on Friday, May 31, to donate blood at a drive held in honor of Rachel, who needs frequent transfusions. More than 75 people donated in total, surpassing their goal of 70.
“We’re really proud of her,” Gabby Harrigan, 17, a close friend of Rachel, said while lying down after donating blood for the first time. “She’s been so strong, and we’re happy to be here for her.”
On Thursday, July 18, the owners of Ladakins have planned a buffet dinner to support Rachel’s medical fund. The fundraiser will begin at 6 p.m. at the restaurant on Montauk Highway in Moriches. The cost is $30 per person. There will also be a DJ, raffles and a 50/50 drawing, and the restaurant asks that reservations be made in advance for tables of up to 12.
At Friday’s blood drive, Mr. Ragone recalled an event earlier that morning that further demonstrated just how generous the community has been. He was in his driveway, about to back out, when a stranger knocked on the window. The man said he was planning to spend $500 on his girlfriend for their anniversary, but he heard Rachel’s story and wanted it to be spent on her instead. He gave only his first name, George, Mr. Ragone said.
“It’s not the first time that has happened,” he added.
Though she remains undecided on where she will attend college after graduating next June, Rachel has her sights set on New York City. And the first thing she wants to do once she’s feeling better, she said, is take a vacation with her grandmother, Gloria Henry, perhaps to San Francisco.