Mountain View junior overcomes hardship to succeed

P.J. Henninger makes the most of her time

By Megan Kehoe / The Bulletin

Published Jun 11, 2014 at 12:01AM

P.J. Henninger, 17

Favorite movie: “Frozen,” “Shrek”

Favorite TV show: “Deal with It”

Favorite book: “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan

Favorite musician: Scotty McCreery

Some weekend mornings, when she’s saved up an extra $100, Paige Jean “P.J.” Henninger likes to wander the warehouse aisles of Costco on Bend’s eastside.

She loads her cart up with industrial-sized cartons of eggs, milk and other goods. And while she has a large family — P.J. is the youngest of eight children — the bulk items she buys on these Costco runs are not for them.

After she stands in line, pays, and leaves the store, P.J. drives across town to The Shepherd’s House, delivering the boxes of food to those who really need them.

“Simple things that people look past every day make such a difference for people who don’t have them,” P.J., 17, said. “Seeing someone’s face light up after you give them something they need makes all that work worthwhile.”

P.J., a Mountain View High School junior, knows the importance of giving back. The honors student, who will attend Central Oregon Community College next year for the majority of her classes, also knows the importance of making the most of her time.

“I know what it’s like to not know whether you have much longer to live,” P.J. said. “That makes me want to live every day like it’s my last.”

At the age of 13, P.J. said she was out ice skating with her youth group when her breathing suddenly became labored. Her breathing problems intensified until she almost passed out, and P.J. was rushed to the emergency room.

Shortly thereafter, doctors discovered a tumor on her thyroid gland. After a surgery to remove half of the tumor, it was found to be cancerous, and P.J. was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer.

“That time was pretty difficult,” P.J. said. “It was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. … It was horrible.”

P.J., who attends Westside Church in Bend, said despite the dire situation, she wasn’t scared. She said her faith in God sustained her during her darkest moments.

P.J. underwent another surgery to remove the remainder of the tumor, and then received radiation therapy. The treatment was successful, and ever since, P.J. said she’s looked at life differently.

“I feel like having cancer gave me an understanding of the importance to succeed,” P.J. said. “It made me grow up quickly, and I now realize the importance of making something of yourself, and the importance of doing the best that you can do.”

What P.J. took away from the experience is hard to miss when it comes to her academic work and the way she lives her life today. While she said she’s always been a straight-A student, her grades took on a new meaning after she overcame the disease. Throughout high school, she’s maintained a 4.03 GPA while bulldozing through most of her graduation requirements a year early.

“You can tell that she really wants to move on and do well in life,” said Andy Young, who taught P.J. science at Mountain View for two years. “Motivation like that isn’t necessarily unusual — it’s just that she took it to a different level. She’s very hardworking and responsible.”

Next year, P.J. is taking almost all of her classes at Central Oregon Community College.

“I’m really excited to be in a more serious learning environment and in a setting where people are there because they want to be,” P.J. said.

And while P.J. is a dedicated student, she also makes time for what’s important to her — which includes giving back to her community. This summer she’s volunteering at The Giving Plate, an organization that provides boxes of food to those in need.

In addition, P.J. said she will continue making Costco runs to help supply The Shepherd’s House — supplies purchased using money she earns from her part-time job at Regal Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX.

“I really love how appreciative people are when they get stuff,” said P.J. “I love to be appreciated. It’s my favorite thing on Earth.”

Because of her past and her desire to help others, P.J. said she wanted to be a doctor for a while. However, after job-shadowing an oncologist this year, she said she decided she didn’t ever want to be the one to tell people they had a terminal disease. Instead, she said she wants to take her natural interest in science and math and go into the medical software field. She also said it’s important to her to one day have a family.

“I want to have something to show for my time,” P.J. said. “I want to be able to say ‘I was an honors student.’ ‘I had a 4.0.’ ‘I did get through college and get my bachelor’s.’ I want to be able to say that I did succeed. That even though I had hardships, I did succeed.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0354, mkehoe@bendbulletin.com.