Rio Rancho teen earns valedictorian amid cancer battle

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RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Even as school’s back in person, people still face the personal challenges from during the pandemic to try and overcome.

Serena Helewicz is Rio Rancho High School’s valedictorian for the Class of 2022 and overcoming challenges, combined with good grades and hard work, is what allowed her to earn the honor.

“It’s great to see her so successful and driven,” said Michelle Helewicz, Serena’s mom. “It’s just been really hard watching her suffer and trying to find the right answers and the right path.

“I started getting sick, probably the summer before my freshman year,” Serena said.

Most of Serena’s time in high school was spent battling rare cancer – with around 100 diagnoses each year – that took a long time to even diagnose.

“I had been feeling sick quite a bit time before that, like finding it unappetizing to eat,” she said.

Her parents watched, feeling helpless as doctors tried to figure out what was going on.

“They really still didn’t know what was wrong,” Michelle said. “They really didn’t know what it was until they took the tumor out.”

“When she lost consciousness, it was really tough.” Serena’s dad said. “When we were airlifted to Colorado and that’s when I received the diagnosis.”

The disease is fibrolamellar carcinoma and it forced Serena to skirt plans in culinary arts and figure skating, to instead go through months of chemotherapy in the hospital.

“I know I should be focused on getting better but I really like wanted to keep something of my normal life,” she reflected.

So, Serena channeled her energy into school, as she felt like it was what she had going for her at the time.

“She never missed a day of school, except when she was in the hospital,” Michelle said. “The whole time, she was very dedicated.”

“I knew exactly what I had to do. I was going to have to take all AP classes. It’s all you have to do and get straight ‘A’s,” Serena said. “Then that’s what I did and I tried to push through.”

This May, Serena graduated with a 4.32 GPA after taking 14 AP classes.

“I’m pretty lucky with my support system and everything I was offered despite my circumstances,” she said.

As for what’s next, she’ll be trying out a new type of immunotherapy.

“We met a new doctor in Chicago that deals with this type of cancer and we’re very hopeful about this type of treatment,” her dad said.

Then in the Fall, Serena will be headed to UNM for a biochemistry degree so she can become a biomedical researcher.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been a huge goal-setter, huge goal-achiever,” she said. “[I encourage others to] just do the best with what you have.”

Her parents are very proud of her and Serena says she plans to continue taking tests for her figure skating so he can be a coach in the future.