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Casey Burrows

Laurel High School student Casey Burrows says she refuses to let cancer define who she is.

Casey Burrows is hard to pigeonhole. 

Her passions are many, and each seem strong enough to anchor the Laurel High School senior's identity.  

The way she talks about cooking makes it seem certain that the culinary program standout would pursue a food-centric career. Then, when she explains her need to know how her cancer treatments work, a medical path seems obvious. 

Nope. She plans to attend Montana State University next year to study mechanical engineering. 

The common thread is her innate drive to define herself through her goals and passions, not the disease that's been part of her life since 2014. 

“She wants so much out of life," said Haley Barker, a Laurel High teacher who's had Burrows in culinary classes. 

Barker's convinced that Burrows' passion is something rooted more deeply than cancer ever could be — and that she expects nothing less of herself despite battling the disease since 2014. 

"I don’t think she ever wants anyone to look at her with pity or to make any exceptions for her," Barker said. "She wants to make sure she’s on the same playing ground as everyone else.”

Diagnosis

In 2014, Burrows' ground shifted. She was diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue cancer that spread to her lymph nodes. Just before her 13th birthday, her left arm was amputated. Chemotherapy followed. 

In 2017, the cancer returned, and she began a new experimental treatment — and her desire to know the mechanics behind it kicked in.

She researched on her own and wasn't shy about questioning doctors and nurses. 

"I was all up in their business," she said. 

Burrows sometimes answers questions with wit and speed. For others, she pauses, thinking her answer through. 

"I think that (desire to know) makes me more curious than I should be sometimes," she said. 

The treatment failed, and Burrows is now on another. Her perception of her cancer shifted. She understood how the treatment worked, and how the cancer dodged it. 

"It was like, good job, you outsmarted the technology; that's awful," she said. "The longer it goes on, the more familiar I become with it. It's almost like a part of me know."

But it didn't shake her commitment to graduating on time, and on her terms. 

'Self motivated'

Burrows has only two courses required for graduation this year. Laurel's NASA HUNCH class isn't one of them. It's the sort of class where students have the opportunity to do unique, cool projects — if they're willing to make it happen. 

"It's completely on them to explore things, discover things, test things," said teacher Linda Wright. 

Burrows and her partner are working on a project with augmented reality. An astronaut could use something like a pair of glasses that could recognize a tool or schematic, then add in images for a helpful overlay, almost like a personal holographic image. 

It's not exactly a baking soda volcano. 

"When you're tasked with a problem, I like trying to solve that problem," Burrows said.

The skills that helped Burrows succeed in the class — "she is very engaged, very self-motivated and enthusiastic," Wright said — have helped her stay on track to graduate. 

In 2017, Burrows started a new program as a junior with Laurel High that allowed her to do much of her coursework from home. 

"I need to graduate," Burrows said she thought at the time. "I'm a junior and I've only got one more year to get this right."

A 'masterpiece'

Burrows plans to find a restaurant job while at school at MSU next year. 

"I just really need to be in that kitchen," she said. 

She's already worked at Walkers Grill in Billings, where she got involved through a connection in a school culinary program. 

"That young woman is passion on a plate," said Nick Steen, the general manager and chef at Walker's. "She is 100 percent genuine, real. There is nothing fake about her.”

Burrows has worked plating food, calling orders and doing prep work — learning the controlled chaos of a restaurant kitchen. Some tasks are easier for her than others, Steen said, but he was up front; if she needed help, she'd have to ask. 

“I told her in the very beginning, I’m not going to treat her any different than anyone else in the kitchen,” he said. 

Perhaps it's unsurprising that Burrows, who, as Steen said, already "knows so much about perseverance,” flourished. 

Both he and Barker highlighted her curiosity as a cook. 

“She looks at food as an experiment and something that, oh, if I put these two things together, let's see what kind of flavors it brings it,” Barker said. “Even if it doesn’t always turn out, she at least tries.”

When Burrows is asked about cooking, she turns to one of her long-thought answers. 

Every ingredient "brings something to the dish," she said. "They all kind of blend together to become these ingredients that are so different, into this masterpiece."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.