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Cancer survivor wows crowd at gala

She beat long odds in fight against a tumor

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Allison Avery wandered through the Huntsman Cancer Foundation Gala Thursday, quiet, as she usually is when she's away from her giggly gang of 13-year-old comrades, but making no effort to hide among the philanthropists ruminating over the autographed footballs and expensive jewelry up for auction.

"Even if Jon Huntsman (Sr.) sees me, there's no way he'll recognize me," said the eighth-grader. "He will be surprised when he finds out who I am."

And he was.

He was so surprised, when Huntsman Cancer Foundation president Janet Bingham introduced the teen to the crowd, he jumped up from his seat to give the nervous-looking brunette a hug.

"I haven't seen her in years," Huntsman said as he made his way back to his table. "She's turned into a remarkable, beautiful young woman."

The last time Hunstman spent time with Allison, she was a knock-kneed 5-year-old with skinny arms and a too-big bow atop her bald head. He held her on his lap in 2001, the day they broke ground for the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and laughed at her when she kept pecking at the dirt after the official ceremony was over. The little cancer patient was intent, it seemed, on digging the foundation herself.

"It was a cool experience," Allison said during an interview in her home Wednesday, looking over photos of herself with Huntsman and Vice President Dick Cheney, who also wielded a shovel at the groundbreaking. But then, she's the first to admit that "sick people tend to get a lot of attention" — especially frail little girls who aren't expected to make it.

"I can't tell you how many times I planned her funeral," said Allison's mother, Terrie Avery, 59, her eyes moist as she gazed across the kitchen table at her now-healthy teenager. "A song would come on the radio and I'd think, 'Oh, that's perfect for Aly's funeral.' I'd see a dress and I'd think, 'Oh this would be great to lay her out in.' "

Now, Allison, a lanky 13-year-old with a trendy haircut and long eyelashes, is anything but fragile. She's a gymnast and a dancer. With, she claims, "no fear," she can expertly maneuver a unicycle up and down her driveway in Sandy.

To her, the years she spent in treatment, never knowing if it was her last day, seem like little more than a bad dream.

"I just remember having fun," said the teen, who takes a Pollyanna-esque outlook on her bout with cancer. She refused pain medication during her treatment because it made her "too tired to play." When her then-blond curls started falling out, Allison and her adopted sister, Michelle, made a game out of pulling her hair out.

"We'd have contests to see who could get the most," Allison recalled, giggling shyly.

The girls' mother, though, doesn't recall so fondly the seven tortuous years she spent praying before doctors declared Allison cancer-free.

"I still can't walk into Gymboree without crying," she said. "For so long, all those cute clothes were just a reminder that my little girl wasn't going to make it."

She cringed involuntarily when she came across a photo of 3-year-old Allison in a brightly colored bikini.

That photo, she said, started it all.

"I remember that day," Avery said. "She woke up looking so cute, with her hair just curling perfectly. I just put a bow in her hair and took her to the photographer."

It wasn't until later, looking at the glossy 8x10, that Avery realized her daughter's right eye was drooping drastically.

Maybe it was ptosis, she thought. Hoped.

But it wasn't.

Retinoblastoma, the doctors called Avery's nightmare — and it wasn't pretty. The cancer snaked around Allison's eyeball, nearly strangling it — and the girl's young life — with its ugly, red tentacles.

"I know what cancer looks like," Avery said. She could see it in her daughter's big, beautiful, blue-green eyes. Literally.

Doctors — at first — suggested one of those eyes be surgically removed.

Considering her baby had just a 5 percent chance of surviving chemotherapy, though, Avery couldn't do it.

Now she's glad.

At Thursday's gala, Allison locked two sparkling eyes on Jon Huntsman Sr. and said thank you. The scar on her eyelid from reconstructive surgery was barely visible through her shimmery, peach eye shadow.

"I'm doing well," she said, "thanks to people like you."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com

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