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Rocking on: Teenage cancer survivor befriends music legend

Photo by asdf

Photo by asdf

SUGAR HILL -- That day sticks out in her head unlike any other.

On Sept. 10, 2009, Sarah Sterner came home from school just like any other day, but better. The first semester of her sophomore year at North Gwinnett High School, Sarah was beaming from the marks on her first progress report.

All A's.

The hard-working student and passionate musician practically skipped her way home that day, she says. Then she noticed her father's car in the driveway, home early from his work as a jeweler.

Hmm, she thought. Inside, she found her parents in the kitchen, with news.

"I only cried because you guys were crying," she tells her father almost a year later. "I figured whatever was going to happen would happen."

Several days earlier, Sarah had had a seizure in the Sterner family living room. An ambulance took her to the hospital. A CT scan checked out fine. X-rays did, too.

Sometimes kids have one seizure and nothing ever again, doctors said. We'll do an MRI in a couple weeks to double check.

No, no, no, Mike Sterner said. You'll do it tomorrow.

They did. And they found a brain tumor.

Love Reign O'er Me

Seven hundred miles and 10 months away, Roger Daltrey has taken the stage for sound check.

The legendary front man for The Who is in Detroit as part of a 2010 tour with Eric Clapton. Daltrey and The Who have been churning out hits and rocking crowds since the early '60s. This day, July 3, he has already taken to the mic.

Offstage, Sarah Sterner and her family have arrived. The 66-year-old music icon from London notices, and greets the 16-year-old cancer survivor from Sugar Hill like an old friend.

"My darling Sarah has arrived," he says with a smile, voice booming across an empty arena.

The welcome is many years in the making.

In 2006, Mike Sterner took his then-12-year-old daughter to see The Who at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, somewhat against her will.

"I remember her saying to me, 'You know dad, I'm not sure if I want to see these guys,'" Sterner says. "'These guys are old.'"

Her response afterward?

"Friggin' awesome," she says. "It blew me away."

Inspired, Sarah has become a talented guitarist and drummer since then. Her two YouTube channels (mrskeithmoon and drummergirl2112) are approaching 200,000 views. She and bandmate Jonas Bagwell just made their first recording, a cover of the Collective Soul staple "December."

Then there was the cancer.

When Sarah was diagnosed in September, her father had already purchased tickets for Daltrey's October show at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. As that date approached, a thought entered his mind.

He started writing on The Who's official website, updating fellow "Whooligans," many who already knew Sarah from her frequent postings on the site, about her status. He completed one post with this question: "We're coming to Nashville, wouldn't it be neat if Roger could say hi to her while we're there?"

That concert in Nashville was the first time Sarah met Roger Daltrey.

Mike Sterner's post had made its way up the food chain, and Daltrey's assistant made arrangements for Sarah and her dad to make an unpaid visit to a paid meet-and-greet he was doing before the show.

"It was love at first sight," Mike Sterner says of the instant bond.

And it was just the beginning.

They kept in touch, and months later Daltrey asked them to be his personal guests when he came to Arena at Gwinnett Center as part of that tour with Eric Clapton. Sarah brought a birthday cake (Daltrey's birthday was that month) and an old harmonica for him.

When they saw each other again at the end of Daltrey's set, "it was like a slow-motion movie," Sarah says.

"He just opened his arms and Sarah jumped in his arms," Mike Sterner recalls. "It was like they were best friends."

Daltrey would give Sarah his own harmonica that night. That meeting was just a week or so before her brain surgery.

Months later, Daltrey would play a private five-song set for her at that sound check in Detroit.

The Kids Are Alright

Sarah Sterner and Roger Daltrey, half a century apart in age, became fast friends but not because she was a diehard fan. He didn't repeatedly call for updates after her surgery because she loved The Who that much more than anyone else.

What the Sterners found out through their interactions with the rock legend is that he has a huge spot in his heart for teenage cancer.

For a decade, Daltrey has been intimately involved with the Teenage Cancer Trust, an English organization specializing in making teenagers in cancer treatment more at home.

Daltrey lost his mother and sister to cancer, but they were adults.

"When we were talking in Detroit, I finally just asked him," Mike Sterner says. "Why teenage cancer?"

The answer was foreshadowed in their first meeting. During their brief encounter at the Ryman Auditorium, Daltrey, familiar with Sarah's story, asked her where she had been treated. Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, she said.

"That's why I do what I do," he replied.

Hospitals around the country are made to facilitate children with cancer. Adult care is adult care.

In the middle lies, well, a type of teenage wasteland.

"(Children's Healthcare) is the greatest hospital in the world," Sarah says. "But it's made for kids. They're not really geared toward teenagers. You have the clowns coming in, and it's like c'mon, I don't feel good."

"You wake up and you don't want to watch Playhouse Disney."

That's where the cause of Daltrey, and now Sarah, comes into play.

With 10 units in England, Teenage Cancer Trust specializes in teen cancer care. That means MTV, and people like Daltrey swinging by instead of puppies and clowns.

The goal for TCT is to go worldwide, with the next stop an expansion across the Atlantic and into the States.

Through her numerous YouTube channels and websites, Sarah asks for donations for her cause. Even with hospital annexes only in England, the sooner those are funded, the sooner the transition can be made here, she says.

The Real Me

A musical passion firmly entrenched in an era gone by (The Who, Rush, The Beatles, Heart) and wisdom beyond her years, Sarah Sterner muses over a question she, like any cancer survivor, has been asked many times.

In the fight of your life, people will say, how do you stay so strong?

"It's just something you have to do," she says. "It's not optional."

Sarah is back at school now, "feeling like a sophomore" during her junior year after missing all but six weeks or so of last school year.

The brain tumor removed from her left temporal lobe four months ago has only about a 2 percent chance of recurring. New meds help fight the fatigue brought on by her anti-seizure medications. She can now make it through most days without a nap.

As she sits near her too-many-to-count-piece drum kit, approaching the one-year anniversary of that day last September, Sarah Sterner has learned a lot about the world, about herself and about her future.

"You hear everything bad about the world," she says. "And then you realize, with so many great people around you, just because something bad has happened in your life, you realize that there are so many great people in this world, and so many great things happening."

"And you just have to keep it going."