Jarraye Hicks is a typical 15-year-old. He likes basketball, admiring Kobe Bryant's high-flying act. Rap music is his favorite. He's even caught the snowboarding bug.
"I'm just a normal kid just trying to make it in the P-O (Portland)," said Hicks, a Jefferson High School freshman.
But what he and his mother, Gahistiski "Skee" Peterson, found out last June made him distinct from his peers. After a longer-than-usual period of flu-like symptoms, Peterson took Hicks to the hospital. A blood test indicated Hicks had acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming tissues of the bone marrow.
"It was almost like disbelief," Peterson said after learning the diagnosis. "I felt like I was on one of those reality TV shows. Within the next half-hour it became pretty real. Even then, it took a little time for it to actually sink in.
"I know that leukemia is a serious thing. It's not a sore throat which you take a couple pills for and it's gone."
With his leukemia, Hicks' malignant bone-marrow cells replace healthy marrow cells. He has become more susceptible to bleeding and infection. Also, normal blood cells lose their ability to fight microorganisms and decrease in number.
"As far as being a parent goes, you feel kind of helpless," said Peterson, who moved from the Parkrose area last summer into a two-story North Portland house with her six children. "My child's in discomfort, in pain, and there's not anything I can do about it."
Peterson, though, has found help locally. As Hicks' cancer-treatment drugs proved ineffective later in the summer, Peterson called on the African American Health Coalition. She attended the AAHC's health and wellness fair, where the National Marrow Donor Program and the American Red Cross had booths. Both the Red Cross and the donor program are housed in same building at 3131 N. Vancouver Ave.
A blood and bone marrow drive is planned from Jan. 16 through 21 at the Red Cross center. To donate blood, call 503-284-4040 to schedule an appointment. Donors must be at least 16 years old to donate blood and weigh at least 110 pounds.
Hicks requires periodic blood transfusions — blood provided by the Red Cross — to help him live. For each cancer treatment, patients use anywhere from two to six units (pints) of red blood cells daily, as well as one unit of platelets every day for up to one month.
Meanwhile, the donor program makes life-saving marrow transplants possible for people who don't have a matching donor in their family. Peterson helped place her son on the program's registry, which has 30,000 people on its bone-marrow waiting list. It's possible for Hicks to receive a donor match from any ethnic group, although the most likely match is with another African American. About 70 percent of all prospective recipients must find a match outside their family.
"It's real important to support your loved ones and even the ones you don't know," said Peterson, whose first name translates to "Peacemaker" in the Cherokee dialect. "That's part of what we all need to start doing as a people — we need to be there to support each other."
Hicks, whose favorite school subject is math, is a confident young man with an infectious laugh. Because of his weekly check-ups at Oregon Health Sciences University, daily oral doses of cancer drugs and vulnerability to fatigue, he can attend Jefferson High only part-time.
His long-term goals are to become a real-estate tycoon and rap star. Hicks has written several rap songs, mostly about life in the "P-O."
And what do the lyrics say?
"You can buy them when they're done," Hicks joked followed by a laugh. "I'd like to make songs for everybody."
Mac Dre is one of his favorite rap artists. Hicks also is a talented dancer, particularly at krumping.
"He has a lot of fresh ideas," said Peterson of her son, her second-oldest child. "He's a quick thinker on the spot. He's open, friendly and outgoing."
Creativity abounds in Hicks, who has designed jeans for his friends and family by taking an existing pair and adding his own personal touch with the use of dyes and a washing machine.
"He doesn't want to admit the idea came from me," Peterson said. "But he took it to a whole different level."
Although Hicks has lived in Portland his entire life, he longs for the solitude and comfort of rural living.
"It'd be cool to live somewhere else," Hicks said. "I like the country. I just like it 'cause there aren't a lot of people and everybody knows each other."
And although he's only tried snowboarding one time, he'd love to get back to the slopes soon.
"I'd like to try to find a way where I can go to Mount Hood and kick it up there for a week with a few of my family members," Hicks said.
Before Hicks hops on a snowboard again, he first needs to be cured of cancer by finding a bone-marrow donor. Peterson is cautiously optimistic.
"There's times where it gets really quiet and you get to think a little bit more," Peterson said. "I think about the possibilities and that there are possibilities outside of what we hope and wish for to be the best outcome."
To join the National Marrow Donor Program, donors must be between 18 and 60 years old. For more information, call Delores Rue-Jones, 503-528-5475.