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Dancing, crying in pain, leukemia patient says she is happy to be alive at 15

The AP reports from Managua, Nicaragua: 

In her glowing pink dress and tiara, Maria Jose Martinez looked the part of the excited princess celebrating her 15th birthday as friends and family gathered for her coming-out party.

She and her father entered the ballroom of the Managua hotel in grand style, between two rows of cadets from the Nicaraguan Military Academy standing at attention with bayonets raised. The thin, sad-eyed girl later let out a thrilled laugh as she danced with one of the green-uniformed soldiers.

Esteban Felix / AP

Leukemia patient Maria Jose Martinez tries on the dress she will wear at her Quinceanera, or 15th birthday party, in her hospital room at La Mascota Children's Hospital in Managua, Nicaragua, on Aug. 25.

Esteban Felix / AP

Maria sits in Dr. Mercedes Arguello's office in the oncology area of La Mascota Children's Hospital in Managua on Sept. 20. She is in her second cycle of chemotherapy and has had three operations since she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia six months ago.

Just hours before, Maria Jose had woken up in a different world, with no pink dress and no long, gold-streaked hair. She had sat up in bed with her bald pate and T-shirt pale in the morning sun, one of dozens of girls receiving treatment for leukemia at the La Mascota hospital in the capital of Managua.

Maria Jose had entered the hospital in May suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, meaning her body produced too many white blood cells. Chemotherapy and other treatment often left her weak and in pain, and her weight had fallen to only 84 pounds (38 kilograms).

Esteban Felix / AP

A medicine drip is secured to Maria's hand on Aug. 25 as she tries on the dress she will wear to her Quinceanera.

Esteban Felix / AP

Maria dances with a military cadet as her father, left, looks on during a mass Quinceanera at a hotel in Managua on Aug. 27.

Despite her illness, Maria Jose, along with some two dozen other girls, had dressed up, left their hospital rooms and taken part in the late-August quinceanera party marking their birthdays. An association of parents with cancer-stricken children had organized the party.

"I wanted to cry because she looked so happy despite her illness," said Maria Jose's mother Petrona Guido.

Maria Jose herself acknowledged that her leukemia had slowed her down. She hadn't wanted to stop dancing with one of the cadets after just two songs.

"That was because I felt sick, otherwise I would have swirled him in the air at least three times," Maria Jose said afterward.

Esteban Felix / AP

Maria, center, watches her sisters try on ball dresses to be worn during her Quinceanera in La Cuchilla village during Maria's temporary discharge from hospital on Aug. 29.

Esteban Felix / AP

Maria, sitting left center, poses for a group portrait with other patients from La Mascota Children's Hospital as they celebrate their Quinceanera at a hotel in Managua on Aug. 27.

Associated Press photographer Esteban Felix followed Maria Jose through the day's preparations and celebrations, as she weakly embraced her twin sister Maria Mercedes from her hospital bed and later returned by wheelchair to her room while still in party dress.

Felix returned with Maria Jose two days later to her tropical hometown of La Cuchilla about 115 miles north of the capital. A crowd of well-wishers, some playing guitar, mandolin and violin, tearfully welcomed Maria Jose as she approached.

About two weeks later, Maria Jose donned another pink dress and cloth roses again for a quinceanera held during Mass at a local chapel. With her thin, brown arms protruding from her dress, she cried with head bowed.

By nightfall, her body had reached a limit, and she cried in pain as two male relatives helped her walk back home.

Esteban Felix / AP

Maria, reflected in the car's side view mirror, smiles as she sees her relatives and neighbors awaiting her arrival in La Cuchilla village on Aug. 29.

Esteban Felix / AP

Maria rests in a hammock in her home before celebrating her Quinceanera in Las Cuchillas village on Sept. 11.

A day later, she was back at Hospital Mascota for more treatment. Her quinceaneras had passed. Symbolically, her childhood had ended, and her life as a woman had begun.

For Maria Jose, the hard fight against cancer also lay ahead.

But she said she was happy.

"I thank God that I'm here, that I'm alive."

Esteban Felix / AP

In this combo of two photos taken on Aug. 27, Maria is pushed in a wheelchair by her father Juan Jose through a line of cadets from Nicaragua's Military Academy during her Quinceanera, top, and later through the oncology area of La Mascota Children's Hospital as she returns to her room after the party.