Grace Wethor is not your typical 17-year-old. For many 17-year-olds, the movie title Clueless can be an apt description. At that age, I was naivete wrapped in inexperience with a dash of “umm, what?” By contrast, when actress, model, DJ, and author Wethor talks, you quickly sense that she has life experience and wisdom well beyond many who are much, much older in chronological age. That’s because Wethor and her life story are quite remarkable.
Wethor grew up in Minnesota, the land where they say “duck, duck, grey duck” instead of “duck, duck, goose.” She was involved in art at an early age and was figure skating and performing in circuses already by the beginning of her teens. This, of course, puts to shame those of us who thought that being able to hold several packets of powdered cheese in your mouth at once was an accomplishment as a kid.
But when she reached age 13, she, in her words, began “feeling sick and tired and started losing passion for things such as figure skating.” For a while, the health care system couldn’t figure out what was going on with her. She said that she went to pediatricians and “a lot of hospitals,” but was “told that she was depressed,” and it was “just a teenager things that she will get through.” Of course, “being a teenager” is not an official medical diagnosis, so her mom said that “we had to keep going.”
When a doctor finally wondered if she may have had mono (short for mononucleosis), the doctor ordered blood tests. The results were abnormal red and white blood cell counts, leading doctors to suspect leukemia. This suspicion brought her to the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where the testing continued, including genetic testing. As Wethor said, things got bewildering with “so many different things happening.”
Eventually, doctors performed imaging of her head, which yielded a shocking diagnosis: a brain tumor, specifically a glioma of the brain stem. Even worse, this glioma was located at a location in the pons making it untreatable. With too many vital structures close by, surgery and radiation therapy were not possible. As Wethor explained, chemotherapy would not adequately cross her blood-brain barrier. With little recourse, she was given an 8% chance of survival. Things looked very grim.
It would have been understandable had Wethor collapsed in an inconsolable heap. This is typically a devastating diagnosis. For many teens, simply not going to prom or having your favorite TV show cancelled can seem devastating. Heck, a grown male doctor recently told me that it was “devastating” when I told him that I couldn’t speak at a conference that he was organizing. Wethor was facing something that few teens are equipped to face, the possibility that her life would be cut short when it was just getting started.
Wethor remembered, “Being in a room, being shown brain scans, and being confused. I sat and stared at the wall, shocked. It was a moment of grief.” This was on January 9, 2015.
What then did Wethor eventually do? She decided to keep on living and in fact, amp her career up several levels. She felt that she was “lucky to have things that she was passionate about,” and decided to move to Los Angeles. This wasn’t just so that she could count geese, but because the new location would give her more opportunities to pursue her passions of acting, modeling, music, and other creative endeavors.
Her mom was supportive of this move and told Wethor, “You can be sad, but don’t be sad for too long. You have to get up and do things.” Wethor explained that she learned from her mom that “Every day is an adventure. You can’t let sadness last too long because the illness starts winning. Instead, acknowledge it and look past it.”
The diagnosis had changed her perspective. Prior to the diagnosis, she had thought that “life was perfect and she had everything figured out.” However, the diagnosis changed her perspective and motivated her to “try to do different things. I was in seventh grade. After January 2015. all those little things that had seemed so important before didn’t matter any more. All the petty drama just doesn’t matter.”
With her unique energy and talents, she began making it in Los Angeles. At the age of 14, she became Teen Vogue‘s “It Girl.” Soon other brands started going to her. Soon, Nickelodeon reached out to her, and she found herself hosting the Kid’s Choice Award. According the IMDb, her acting and television credits include appearances in Fresh Off the Boat, Radio Disney Music Awards, and Fashion Police. She calls herself, “just a kid from Minnesota,” but this kid from Minnesota was doing things that most people can only dream of doing, all while she was carrying what was thought to be soon a life ending diagnosis.
About that diagnosis. Wethor wasn’t behaving as most people with such a tumor would, but neither was the tumor. After she had initially received “a less than 1% five-year survival prognosis,” as she said, follow-up exams have revealed the tumor to be so far stable. In her words, “the tumor isn’t behaving as it should,” and fortunately has not progressed or caused physical or cognitive disabilities. This has all been without any real significant medical treatment because “treatment would do more harm than good,” according to Wethor.
Wethor credits her passions as helping with her condition, feeling that they have given her “something to live for. People with illnesses tend to do a lot better outside of hospitals. I have tried to take myself outside of illness. I am not my illness.”
Wethor is in the unique position of “physically looking fine and not looking like the typical picture of a cancer patient,” but continuing to have the diagnosis. It has made her realize that people often aren’t what they appear. “You can’t see what people are struggling with, you can’t make assumptions about people. It’s made me look at people differently.”
As this video shows, she has become a spokesperson for the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation:
Her experiences have given her vision and in essence powers that most other people don’t have. “Such a life-changing event broadens your perspective. You can’t go back to being oblivious or naive. You can’t go back to just being a gossiper in high school.” True to her nature, she is using her unique experience to try to help others to broaden the perspective others. She’s written a book about her experiences entitled You’re So Lucky. Also, here is a TedX Talk that she gave in 2017:
She has been trying to motivate other kids “to go for their hopes and goals, no matter the situation or illness.” She has been connecting with others who are going through illnesses, especially with those affecting the brain such as cancer and injuries. This helps tremendously because, they can “feel like they were the only other people who knew what they were going through.”
A passion of hers is music therapy. She found that writing and producing music helped her get through tough times. She said that one of her missions is “to connect patients to music and music to the community. Music therapy can physically and chemically change the brain. Music therapy can help especially those who can’t get standard medications.” For example, music has helped her through terrible migraines.
Thus, she has founded “We Can Beat This,” with the mission of connecting “patients to the healing properties of music and connect the public to the patients.” This will include holding “music therapy events for patients with brain cancer, illnesses, or injuries” and “collaborations with music festivals and venues to raise awareness for these illnesses in an open and accepting environment.” Wethor is serving as a key connector, introducing communities that have not traditionally worked together using her contacts in different industries.
When you talk to Wethor, you can feel her energy, her positivity, which is especially refreshing when the news, social media, and workplace politics can be dominated by people criticizing and attacking each other without offering real solutions. Wethor is a breath of fresh air because she decided to go on breathing and living when many others may have thrown in the towel. She may be technically 17-years old, soon to be 18, but her experience and wisdom go well beyond those years.