Published May 4, 2021
High school can be challenging enough for some teens without having to worry about a cancer diagnosis. But Kristen Tefertiller wasn’t going to let her acute myeloid leukemia (AML) stop her from maintaining the highest GPA in her class.
Tefertiller is about to graduate from Holly High School in Southeast Colorado. Despite her top GPA being an impressive feat in and of itself, the fact that she continued to excel in school after being diagnosed with AML in 2019 is truly what sets her apart.
“So far, I’m still valedictorian,” she said in a video for local station KUSA. “It’s just been something I’ve wanted and I couldn’t tell you why I wanted it.”
Tefertiller’s diagnosis came after she got a light scrape and it bled for about an hour and a half. Doctors later diagnosed her with AML in 2019, and she spent seven months at the Children’s Hospital Colorado location in Aurora.
During her time there, she underwent two traditional chemotherapy treatments and a bone marrow transplant all while keeping up with her schoolwork through online classes.
Luckily, she’s feeling great today, and KUSA reported that she was “cancer free.” She’s feeling grateful for the outcome of her treatment and her success in school, but also for the support from her teachers and hospital staff throughout her cancer battle. Her pediatric psychologist, Dr. Robert Casey, was one of the hospital staff members she became close with.
“Dr. Bob, he was there telling me he’s like, ‘You don’t have to be number one with everything you’re going through,'” Tefertiller said. “And I pretty much told him, ‘Watch me, I will.’”
And that determination did not fail her. With her current GPA, she’s expected to be valedictorian of her class when she graduates in a couple weeks. As for “Dr. Bob,” he is both impressed and unsurprised. He’ll be proudly attending her graduation.
“The fact that she is still valedictorian is, although not surprising to me, just an incredible achievement on her part,” Dr. Casey said.
Upon graduating, Tefertiller will attend Grand Canyon University to study forensic psychology. And with a mindset like hers, it’s hard to imagine anything less than continued success for the Colorado teen.
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a blood cancer that affects bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside of your bones. It’s a rare cancer overall, but it is the most common type of leukemia in adults, and, rarely, teens like Tefertiller also get AML.
Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, chief of the Division of Hematology at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, explains that bone marrow is essentially the factory that makes all of the cells in the blood stream. This includes the red blood cells that bring oxygen to our tissues, white blood cells that make up the immune system and the platelets which help stop bleeding.
When a person has AML, “that factory gets broken” because the bone marrow fills with cancer cells. Ultimately, this hinders the creation and function of the important blood cells.
“So there’s a bit of a paradox,” Dr. Sekeres tells SurvivorNet. “The bone marrow has too many cells, yet the bloodstream has too few cells as the normal bone marrow cells die off.”
Symptoms of AML can include shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance, unexplained bruising or infections. But sometimes people with AML have no symptoms at all.
“Most of the time, this comes as an unwelcome surprise diagnosis,” Dr. Gail Roboz, a medical oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells SurvivorNet. “Often, patients have no idea that leukemia is even anywhere on the radar.”