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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — As sixth-graders in Lakenheath, England, Kendra Billinghurst and Candy Osu plotted their high school graduation. They wanted to don their gowns and receive their diplomas on the same day, from the same school.

After the two friends and their families wound up at Misawa’s Robert D. Edgren High School several years ago, the plan seemed right on track.

But the dream almost vanished in a cruel twist of fate that ripped Billinghurst away from her high school friends and the life of an ordinary teenage girl.

On Feb. 4, 2003, Billinghurst passed out at school; she had been feeling under the weather for two months. Medical tests run at Misawa’s hospital and corroborated by the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii confirmed the frightening news: Billinghurst, a popular junior and cheerleader at Edgren, had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.

About 24 hours after her trip to the base emergency room, Billinghurst and her family were on a plane to Tripler, where she immediately began chemotherapy and radiation. There was barely time to say goodbye to friends.

Last Friday, Billinghurst returned to Misawa for the first time since she left, an all-expenses paid trip for her and her family from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This Friday, she’ll zip up a green-and-gold gown and walk with Osu, Stephanie Ada and the rest of Edgren’s class of 2004 on graduation day at the Misawa Civic Center.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions “to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy,” according to its Web site, http://www.wish.org/. Children must be older than 2½ and younger than 18 and determined medically eligible for a wish by their physician. A child does not have to be terminally ill to qualify.

Billinghurst and her family relocated to the Seattle-Tacoma area in Washington state, where the Air Force was able to reassign Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Billinghurst to McChord Air Force Base and Billinghurst was able to continue cancer treatment at Madigan Army Medical Center. One of Billinghurst’s nurses referred her to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

When foundation volunteers approved her application and asked what she wanted, the 17-year-old could have chosen just about anything: a date with Mel Gibson, an Alaskan cruise, or a shopping spree in New York City, to name a few.

Instead, she asked to graduate with her friends.

“I left so suddenly, I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone and that’s what I wanted,” she said. “I wanted to see everyone again and say goodbye before school was out and everyone moved on to college.”

Her plan was to surprise her friends at school Friday after arriving on the 9 a.m. flight into Misawa City’s airport. But Edgren’s senior class of 50 beat her to the punch. They gathered at the airport and greeted Billinghurst with smiles, hugs, flowers and a few tears.

Osu and Ada, two of Billinghurst’s closest friends at Edgren, corresponded with Billinghurst via e-mail while their friend attended Spanaway Lake High School near Tacoma.

“When people say they’re coming back, it never happens,” Osu said. “It’s awesome that it did.”

Graduation on Friday will be a happy occasion, Billinghurst said, even though her battle against leukemia is only half over. For one more year, she’ll continue with chemo drugs that make her body ache, ruin her appetite and have robbed her strength and flexibility.

But she said she appreciates life and people a lot more. And best of all, her cancer is in remission.

“It feels really good to see all of my friends,” she said. “They’re a lot closer to me than most friends I’ve had. It means a lot.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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