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Afton strong: LDS teen spends final days at church and temple, caring for others

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I think that the thing that is so remarkable about Afton, despite the pain, despite the unsettling knot in her stomach, ... she remained herself. ... She had this infectious ability to be happy, even when she should have been the most miserable. – Robert Wallace

When doctors told Afton Wallace, then 17, there was nothing else they could do to save her life, Wallace spent time grieving with her immediate family. But on the car ride home from the hospital that day in May, Wallace, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had already turned her thoughts to helping others.

"We were all crying," said Afton's father, Robert Wallace. "It’s the worst news that you could have. Then she said, ‘Dad, can I go to the temple?'"

The request initially took Robert Wallace by surprise, but when Afton Wallace explained that she believed she would be better prepared to serve those on the other side if she received her endowment, he was reminded of his daughter's selflessness.

"So here she was, thinking ahead of what she wanted to do and who she could help because she felt like she could help more people after having gone to the temple," Robert Wallace said.

In 2014, during her junior year of high school, Afton Wallace of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was competing in the Mississippi USA state swimming championships, performing with her high school show choir and trying to qualify for an academic scholarship from Brigham Young University. But she experienced minor back pain that soon turned into a battle with Ewing's sarcoma and, ultimately, a fight for her life.

Through 18 rounds of chemotherapy, 120 days in the hospital and all the way up until the final day of her life, Wallace maintained her buoyant personality and her innate ability to care for others.

The first sign that something was wrong came in March 2014, when Afton Wallace's complaints of back pain began to worry Robert Wallace. Several doctor visits and MRIs didn't provide any answers, and the pain only increased. Diagnoses ranged from a pinched nerve to a factitious mental disorder. By the end of May 2014, Afton Wallace had lost 40 pounds and was experiencing intense pain.

"So we’re going to the doctor every week, and he’s giving her more pain medicine, and there’s nothing in the MRI," Robert Wallace said. "Finally, we went to another doctor, and this other doctor said, 'I don’t like how much pain she’s in, so let’s just do a scan of her whole body.' They did a scan of her whole body, and that’s when they found the cancer."

On May 22, 2014, Afton Wallace was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma. She had a 15-centimeter-long tumor in her pelvic bone and other tumors in her liver, spleen and kidneys. She was immediately taken by Life Flight to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and started chemotherapy the next day.

"I’ve described it as a kick in the head and a punch in the gut; it’s wrenching," Robert Wallace said. "That first day, you’re spinning. Your mind spins. Your emotions spin. You have no reference because they tell you it’s bad, and everybody tells you that cancer can kill you. It’s a free fall emotionally."

But Afton Wallace's diagnosis wasn't enough to dampen her spirits or wipe the smile from her face. Three days after arriving at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Wallace entertained more than 150 people in her hospital room.

"She was smiling, and here she is on massive painkillers, and she had just a constant stream of people wishing her well," Robert Wallace said. "Afton had a very unique ability to make people feel like they were her best friend. ... I would say, 'Afton, do you know what the word "best" means? "Best" is singular. It’s not a plural.' And she’d say, 'Dad, they’re all my best friends.'"

As one of the few members of the LDS Church in her high school, Wallace was commonly classified as "the Mormon." But as word spread about Wallace's condition, hundreds of friends and strangers of various faiths turned to their own religions, offering prayers for Wallace.

"Everyone started saying that they had been praying for Afton, and that started literally immediately after her diagnosis. There was no delay," Robert Wallace said. "With almost every single church, we’d hear from someone. They’d say, 'Our church is praying for you. You’re on our prayer rolls.' People would tell me, 'We prayed for Afton on Sunday. How’s she doing?' The Catholic Church had some different masses for Afton’s benefit. One of the guys at work is Hindu, and he said, 'We were praying for you at the Hindu temple last week.' ... From every religion to even every denomination you could think of, people were saying they were praying for Afton."

The Rev. P.J. Curley of St. Michael Catholic Church learned about Afton Wallace's condition as youths from his congregation prayed for her.

"They were all telling me about her enthusiasm and her legacy," the Rev. Curley said. "In reality, there are many, many other people that get sick, and we don't reach out in the exact same way. But, obviously, because of her ability and her faith and her family and her love, people felt close to her."

During Afton Wallace's senior year, she tried to live life to the fullest. She was voted homecoming queen, took three Advanced Placement classes and tackled the ACT between chemotherapy rounds, refusing to lose her spirit. After spending 120 days of the year in the hospital and undergoing three types of chemotherapy, Afton Wallace's affectionate personality remained constant, especially around the hospital.

"She knew the name of every one of the patients," Robert Wallace said. "She knew what cancer they had. She knew their parents' names. ... She would be greeting everybody and asking how they were doing, making sure that their spirits were up."

Although Robert Wallace acknowledges that his daughter wasn't perfect, he believes the support, love and prayers she received was evidence of her selflessness.

"She argued with her siblings. She talked back to her parents, and she was, clearly, she was a normal teenager," Robert Wallace said. "I think that the thing that is so remarkable about Afton, despite the pain, despite the unsettling knot in her stomach, ... she remained herself. ... She had this infectious ability to be happy, even when she should have been the most miserable."

On May 7, Afton Wallace and her family learned the chemotherapy was not working, and there was nothing left for them to do. On May 15, a day before her 18th birthday, Wallace received her endowment in the Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple, accompanied by many family members.

The following Sunday, Wallace's health was rapidly declining, and Robert Wallace approached his daughter about her ability to attend their church services.

"It would have been a whole lot more convenient not to go to church," Robert Wallace said. "We gave her the option, of course, and said, 'Afton, if you want to go to church, we’ll go with you. If you don’t want to go to church, we’ll stay home with you. Whatever you want to do.' And she said, 'I need to go to church today.' And we said, 'Well, why do you need to go to church today?' And she said, 'Because I invited someone to be there today, and I told them I would sit with them.' She said, 'I have to be there so if they come, they won’t sit alone.'"

On May 21, Afton Wallace graduated from Warren Central High School, sixth in her class, with an academic scholarship to BYU. She died three days later, on May 24.

More than 1,000 people attended her memorial service at the Vicksburg City Auditorium, and Wallace was buried next to family members in Salt Lake City.

"We didn’t get the miracle that we wanted, but I believe that this whole last year is a miracle," Robert Wallace said. "We have a testimony that we live after we die, and we have a testimony that our family is sealed together for eternity. It doesn’t change the hole in your heart. It doesn’t change the longing and the missing and the fact that you want to send her a Snapchat or say, 'Hey, this is really cool, Afton. What do you think about that?' But what it does do is you have hope."

Although Afton Wallace will not be able to fulfill her dream of attending BYU, Robert Wallace created a GoFundMe campaign, titled #aftonstrong, to raise money for an endowed scholarship to BYU in Afton's name. More information can be found on gofundme.com.

Email: spetersen@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @Sarah_DNews