A survivor herself, Isabel Oppenhuizen raises a staggering $20k for blood cancer research


The moment Isabel found out she had been named Student of the Year.

On Feb 28, sophomore Isabel Oppenhuizen stood before a crowd of people, her family and friends beaming at her as she accepted the award signifying seven weeks of hard work and a battle fought and defeated at too young of an age.

“It was amazing,” Isabel said. “I even said later on, ‘I wish it was Groundhog Day,’ so I could live the evening over and over again because seeing all the work that I put into it and getting something back was [rewarding].”

Isabel was awarded Student of the Year by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) at the Final Event, the night that culminates LLS’s Man, Woman, and Student of the Year campaigns. Candidates for these awards are given a seven-week period to raise as much money as possible for blood cancer research. For the student series, the candidate who raises the most money receives a college scholarship and the coveted title of Student of the Year.

Isabel first heard of LLS’s initiative from her mom’s friend who had been a participant in the Man and Woman of the Year campaign and believed Isabel would be interested in joining because of her experience with lymphoma.

“In the August of 2017, like right before school started, I was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, which is an aggressive form of cancer in your lymph nodes,” Isabel said. “Mine was right here in my tonsil and in my armpit too.”

Just barely a freshman in high school, Isabel received the life-altering news of her diagnosis, sending her life in retrograde.

“At first I didn’t really believe it, like ‘That’s a funny joke. Alright, let’s continue on,’ ” Isabel said. “But then once we got to the hospital and the doctor started explaining it, it really set in. And then it was kind of like, ‘How am I going to tell my friends? What am I going to do with school?’ It kind of put a hold on everything I was planning to do, so I had to rethink what I was going to do from there.”

From there, Isabel’s high school career began not with getting lost in the halls or picking out Homecoming dresses but taking online classes and undergoing rigorous treatment.

Yet through it all, Isabel remained steadfast in her strength and positivity.

“Honestly, it was easier than I thought it was going to be,” Isabel said with profound nonchalance. “At first, I thought, ‘Well I’m not going to be able to meet anybody. I’m not going to be able to go back into school normally.’ But I had a positive mindset throughout all of it. I was like, ‘This isn’t going to last long. I’m going to get through it.’ So it was easier than I thought it was going to be.”

Isabel attributes her perseverance to an unwavering support system around her, most notably her mom who was “there with [her] 24/7.”

“It hit her really hard, too,” Isabel said. “Her only daughter getting diagnosed with cancer— that’s a hard thing to be able to understand and deal with. So I had to make sure that she was okay and happy and knew that I was fine, too.”

Fortunately now in remission, Isabel was able to return to school for her second semester of freshman year and is now continuing to rebuild and move on in the aftermath of her journey with cancer.

Through her treatment, however, Isabel’s observations fueled a desire to reach out and make a change.

“During my time going through treatment, I realized how underfunded research is, especially for blood cancers,” Isabel said. “So I wanted to give back and help stop anyone else from being diagnosed.”

Thus, Isabel jumped at the fundraising opportunity LLS presented, enlisting as a candidate for Student of the Year. Her allotted seven weeks began in January of this year; her first step entailed putting together a small team to aid in her efforts, which included Isabel’s best friend, junior Shayna Keaton.

“[Isabel] asked if I wanted to be on her team during the fundraiser, and I said yes because I knew she’d raise a ton of money and make a huge difference, so I wanted to help as much as I could,” Shayna said. “I helped to come up with fundraising ideas, sell bracelets, and in general, support Isabel.”

Over the seven weeks, Isabel worked tirelessly sending out letters and making phone calls asking for donations, and at the high school and 5th/6th building, she sold friendship bracelets at lunches.

As a whole, the period was vastly gratifying and rewarding for Isabel; she believes her passion for the work is what sustained her work ethic.

“If I wasn’t that into it, I wouldn’t really put that much effort into it,” Isabel said. “I wouldn’t push myself. Those seven weeks were the best seven weeks that I’ve had in a long time because I was constantly doing something, and I knew that I was helping people and was going to make a change.”

Shayna, too, found fulfillment and joy in the fundraising process, not only because she was helping her best friend but also other cancer patients and families.

“It felt so good to know that I was helping people out, and it was even better doing it with my best friend,” Shayna said. “The whole experience just reminded me that amazing things can happen through hard work, and I’m so glad we had the chance to help cancer patients in their treatment and recovery. I’ve grown up around family members who were diagnosed with cancer. I’d always feel helpless and not know what to do. It’s nice to know that I’ve done something to make a difference, and I don’t feel as helpless anymore.”

After seven weeks, Isabel’s efforts came to a close at the Final Event, in which all the candidates came together and Man, Woman, and Student of the Year were announced.

In total, the student candidates raised $41,002.86. To that total, Isabel and her team contributed a whopping $20,026.18, much to the pride and awe of those around her, including Principal Steve Passinault.

“I’m really proud of her,” Passinault said. “She’s been through a lot with battling cancer herself, so she obviously had a passion for helping other people. When you see that it makes you feel good that the school plays a small part in developing students or helping students look outside of themselves for others.”

At the Final Event, Isabel’s Student of the Year title was announced, and she was able to revel in the presence of her friends and family and the culmination of all her and her peers’ hard work.

“I was having so much fun because my entire family was there, people that I don’t get to see that often,” Isabel said. “And then my best friend was there, too. Then seeing all the other candidates’ hard work come together and how much we raised was great.”

For those around her, too, the night was one to remember and cherish forever.

“The Final Event was one of the happiest nights of my life,” Shayna said. “I am so proud to have Isabel as my best friend, and I was so proud to see her get that award. She is so hardworking, generous, and amazing. That night, everyone got to see all those qualities.”

Overall, Isabel’s experiences were able to develop into success and altruism through perseverance and ardor. Now, Isabel looks back on the experience fondly, from all the relentless work to the Final Event. As for other young people hoping to make a change, she has one message:

“Don’t wait to do it,” Isabel said. “Don’t keep pushing it off and pushing it off. Just do it.”