Today, Danielle Orange is two weeks away from finishing her final semester at LMU. After graduation, she has a job lined up with Teach for America. A liberal studies major, Orange is enrolled in 19 units of credit.
She never skips school – a pattern that has continued since high school when she had perfect attendance.
Orange will be the first in her family to graduate from college. She’s also a cancer survivor. Oh, and her baby is due in three days.
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles with parents who could not afford their own higher education and therefore worked all their lives, Orange never thought of college as a real option. She described her childhood as one “where college is not encouraged, where education is almost seen as a joke and where the dropout rate is 50 percent.”
When she turned 13, though, her life began to change. Her father developed a cancer of the plasma cells called multiple myeloma. A combat veteran who served in the Vietnam War, Orange’s father unknowingly ingested Agent Orange during his service, a chemical used to kill vegetation. The chemical was later found to lead to a higher risk for a variety of cancers, including multiple myeloma.
Her dad’s diagnosis was when Orange’s “no-matter-what” attitude kicked in.
“If I crawled in a hole and died every time something unfortunate happened to me, I would have crawled in a hole at 13 when my dad got cancer,” Orange said. Instead, she chose to be strong.
“I have a no-matter-what attitude,” Orange said. “That was my philosophy. That, OK, it was going to be hard, but no matter what, I’m not quitting.”
So two years later, when she was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 15 – another direct result of her father’s exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam – she continued to attend school despite her family’s hesitation.
“My parents didn’t want me to go to school. In their defense, they were trying to protect me, but they wanted me to take a year off of school,” Orange said. “I am such a stubborn person that I rode the bus to school, and I begged my principal.”
School was important to Orange because it helped her maintain a level of normalcy that, in the chaos of her illness, was nearly impossible to find in any other area of her life.
“I knew I was going to die,” Orange said. “I just knew. You’re 15, and what are you thinking? That’s what you hear when you think of cancer: I’m going to go bald and I’m going to die. I was going through chemotherapy and radiation therapy with these people that visibly, you could see, deteriorating. But I was like, ‘I can’t miss school.’ It was the only part of my life that was normal.”
Even school was not quite the same as before. Orange lost friends and acquaintances that didn’t understand or weren’t able to cope with her cancer.
“I was the girl with cancer; I didn’t have a name anymore,” Orange said. “I couldn’t go out. I had to wear a mask from time to time. I remember someone told me cancer was contagious and don’t ever talk to them again. I had a friend that I thought was my best friend, and she told me, ‘I just can’t deal with the fact that you have cancer.’ She stopped hanging out with me.”
Despite the challenges and exhaustion that came with treatment, Orange fought through. After a six-month battle, her cancer went into remission. Her father was not so fortunate, and passed away when Orange was 17 years old.
At this point, Orange’s quest for normalcy was enriched with new feelings of gratitude and purpose.
“My relationship with God changed,” she said. “I had a greater appreciation. I felt more responsible. I never understood why God chose me to live … I just knew I had a purpose. I always feel like I have this gift of life that I was told I wasn’t really supposed to have, that I would never make it to. Well, you’ve got to do something with it, right?”
So Orange committed. Though she did not have the financial means to come to LMU, she applied for scholarships, and her mom saved every dime. She worked three jobs to help her mother pay for her schooling. She became involved at LMU as an R.A., as a CLC leader and as a member of Belles Service Organization. She never skipped class.
Then, just before entering her senior year, she received the news that she was pregnant. After being told that she had just a 17% chance of ever conceiving a child and a 10% chance of ever carrying a child to full term due to her cancer, she was surprised, but she made the decision to keep the baby right away.
“This wasn’t a try,” Orange said. “I just never thought that it would happen for me. And it did. So abortion was never an option. Adoption was never an option for me. Not the way God has blessed me.”
Orange knew that she wanted to continue going to school and graduate college even during her pregnancy to set an example for her younger sister and make her family proud. She was aware, too, that her pregnancy would come with strange looks, especially at a private Catholic university. Even though it was difficult, she maintained and continues to uphold the no-matter-what mentality that she’d developed in high school and has persevered.
“People say it doesn’t matter what other people think but it does get to you,” Orange said. “I had someone jaw-dropped, just stare. I remember someone saying, ‘Wow, I thought I was having a bad day, but she’s pregnant.’ But people have their opinions. I can’t do anything about it, and I’m not here to change anybody’s opinion. I’m just going to school.”
Orange’s boyfriend of four years, Ariel Williams, described her as tough.
“The other day, she was walking through campus and her sandal broke, so she had to walk barefoot, so that was kind of embarrassing for her,” Williams said. “But she’s always toughing it out, always hardworking, always diligent.”
Today, in her final weeks of both pregnancy and college, Orange feels good about the way things have turned out. Her daughter is completely healthy.
“Me and my boyfriend, we always say she ruined our lives to give us a better one,” Orange said. “I gave up my whole life for this … My whole life is not my own anymore. But it’s better than I ever thought it could be.”
If there is one thing Orange hopes that she can bestow on both her daughter and on her future students when she becomes a teacher, it’s resiliency.
“Life’s going to kick you,” Orange said. “That’s just what it is. It’s difficult for everybody. You never really know someone’s story until you talk to them ... But cancer is not a death sentence; being pregnant at 21 is not a death sentence. You move on. You continue.”
And today, Orange continues.