Student Beats Cancer, Heads to Medical School

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

by Amanda Sapio ‘13

Kelsea Henderson, a senior biology major at Saint Joseph's University from Salem, N.J., was only 13 when she was diagnosed with cancer. With less than a one percent chance of survival, doctors didn’t believe Henderson would live past the age of 15. After undergoing chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and 18 major surgeries, she defeated the frequently fatal disease. Henderson now plans to attend Creighton University's School of Medicine, in Omaha, Neb., with the goal of one day specializing in pediatrics.

“I really love working with kids,” Henderson says. “Being at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for all of my care has shown me that working in a children’s hospital is a much happier environment compared to a regular hospital.”

As a result of the extensive time Henderson spent in the hospital, she and her sister, Karlee, a sophomore at Rowan University with plans to attend medical school, started PICU Ups. Named with the anagram for Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in mind, the organization creates and delivers care packages to CHOP patients diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses.

“I remember when the nurses would come to my hospital room and paint my nails on Sunday afternoons,” Henderson says. “I felt so pampered and special, and I want the children who are now patients at CHOP to feel that way as well.”

The first sign of Henderson’s cancer began two months prior to her 14th birthday when she felt severe pain on the left side of her body. A few weeks later, the doctors found a rare tumor in her chest adjacent to her spinal column and aorta. The tumor, which was about the length of seven vertebrae, surrounded nerves outside her spinal cord. A biopsy confirmed cancer. An oncologist at CHOP ordered radiation and chemotherapy.

“The tumor couldn’t be removed immediately because it was growing into my vertebral column,” Henderson says. “Radiation was our only hope. I kept reminding myself that everything was going to be all right because I knew there was no point in giving up.”

Henderson’s perseverance and positive spirit helped the chemotherapy treatments destroy much of the tumor. A neurosurgeon then performed a tedious 32-hour surgery to remove the rest.

“My neurosurgeon said he would not have done the surgery if I didn’t have a positive outlook, which was the result of my family’s support. The doctor knew that it wouldn’t have been a successful surgery without my support base.”

Henderson worked with a tutor for much of high school, but she was healthy enough to attend Woodstown High School in Woodstown, N.J., for her senior year. Despite dealing with side effects from chemotherapy and many major surgeries, Henderson knew that she wanted to graduate on time. She walked proudly with her class, carrying a 4.0 GPA, and received numerous honors, including Most Courageous Student Award, People’s Choice Award, Most Courageous Athlete Award and the Jackie Nelson Scholarship Award.

Her Saint Joseph’s education was an influence on Henderson’s decision to attend medical school. In addition to majoring in biology, she declared a philosophy minor to better understand her future patients’ perspectives on the world. Henderson has also volunteered to work with children at the GESU School and Gompers Elementary School.

“I came to SJU with an interest in biology, but now I absolutely love it,” Henderson says. “That is definitely a result of my biology professors’ enthusiasm and passion.

In 2011, Henderson received a Summer Scholars grant, a competitive award giving students the opportunity to engage in faculty-mentored research and other creative or scholarly endeavors. Henderson worked with John Braverman, S.J., assistant professor of biology, investigating genetic variation among clusters of bacteriophages. She presented her research at the Sigma Xi symposium and at the Celebration of Student Achievement.

“In the summer of 2011, I was a new professor starting a research project,” Fr. Braverman says. “I would prefer not to put a student on a big and open-ended project at its very start, but Kelsea was able to understand my initial ideas, consider the steps needed to be taken, and help me get the project started. I have never seen someone so young tackle such a large and daunting project so gracefully. I am really glad she was there.”

Eileen Grogan, Ph.D., professor of biology, was Henderson’s professor for Developmental Biology and also mentored her through medical school applications.

“Kelsea's smile, good nature and inquisitive mind are only the start of what makes this young woman an exemplary student and individual,” says Grogan. “In the short time I have known her, she has proven to be dedicated but sensitive, strong enough to know when to ask for help, and full of courage when questioning if she has met her fullest potential. Her being radiates magis and cura personalis. I would want her to be my future physician without a doubt.”

Some of Henderson’s many honors, awards and achievements include receiving the Saint Joseph’s Eagles Fly for Leukemia Scholarship; the SJU Medical Alumni Scholarship; a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Grant; the Patients of Courage: Triumph over Adversity Award from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons; the Biology Award for highest GPA; and the College of Arts and Science’s Dean’s List each semester she was enrolled. Henderson is also a member of the Alpha Epsilon Delta Pre-Medical Honors Society and the Phi Beta Kappa Academic Honor Society.

Media Contact

Patricia Allen, Senior Associate Director of University Communications, 610-660-3240,

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