Most teenagers are just trying to navigate virtual high school during the pandemic. Mikari Tarpley had to focus on homework plus being treated for cancer while trying to avoid COVID-19.
“A lot is going on, but I'm glad I'm alive,” she told Inside Edition Digital.
The 16-year-old from Smyrna, Georgia has Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The disease forms in the lymph system, which is part of the immune system.
She first noticed her swollen neck in the middle of a dance class late last year. After a few doctors appointments to get it checked out, she says she was first misdiagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma. Then a lymph node biopsy showed otherwise.
“It was really scary,” she recalled of hearing the news. “It was just a numbness that kind of took over me. I think I did cry a little.”
Mikari was officially diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on March 20. The diagnosis coincided with the start of many people's self-isolations in order to decrease the spread of the coronavirus. And it happened to fall on the birthday of one of her heroes, Syndee Winters.
The two met while performing in Disney’s “The Lion King” Broadway National Tour from 2015-2016. Mikari played Young Nala and Syndee played adult Nala. She was recently seen as the Angelia, Eliza and Peggy stand by in “Hamilton.”
“All the young Nala's that have come up while I was at ‘The Lion King’ over the last 10 years have turned out to be amazing women. And Mikari is no different. She's a rock star,” Syndee told Inside Edition Digital.
Mikari’s illness impacted Syndee. Another Young Nala, Shannon Tavarez, had passed away from cancer in 2010 at 11 years old. Her brother, now 16, was diagnosed with a brainstem glioma when he was 5.
That’s why Syndee recently reached out to Mikari to have her help finish a song she wrote, “Warrior.” Syndee originally wrote it as an anthem for her friend, Nacole Ali, who had breast cancer. She named the song the same title as Nacole’s book.
“I sort of connected it with troubles and tribulations and obstacles that we all face in our own lives, but then also had an opportunity to create that story that is relatable for so many women, so many Black women, who are diagnosed with breast cancer and other cancers as well,” Syndee said of the meaning behind the song.
But when it was time to release it, Syndee realized the song's bridge wasn’t done. That’s when she enlisted Mikari -- a warrior in her own right.
“A warrior princess, because we always say that Nala is a warrior princess,” Syndee said.
The former castmates reunited on zoom to workshop the lyrics. It turned into more of a therapy session for Mikari.
“When we were just brainstorming, throwing stuff out there, Ms. Syndee, she turned into this therapist,” Mikari said. “She was like, ‘Okay, what is this? How are you feeling about this?’ It got really deep and I had never gotten that far with just anyone, I don't think. I mean, maybe my mom.”
Having this opportunity really moved Mikari. “I felt so grateful that I could just express myself in this way with someone that I look up to and just appreciate and love so much. And so it was nice being able to just sort of tell my story.”
In July, Mikari rang the bell at Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta signaling the end of her chemotherapy treatments. She now wears a smile on her face but when the days get tough, she turns to the song she helped write.
“Even though it's hard sometimes, you just got to pick yourself up,” Mikari said. “You're going to make it through. So anytime I have like those down moments, I kind of connect to that song.
“I can do this. I'm a warrior. I'll get through it. I was built to last.”
For Mikari’s sweet 16, in lieu of presents and a party, she raised over $17,000 for Sickle Cell Anemia patients. She plans to continue advocating, volunteering and raising awareness about children with serious illnesses. Next month, Mikari's story will be featured on The Tower of Talent TV Show- a fundraiser for Children's Hospital's Music Therapy Department.
She also has a single coming out soon. Her long term goal is to be Grammy Awarding-winning singer-songwriter.