The hospital is a day or two away.

Now, sitting on a pink sofa in a Kennedy Center lounge, her dancer's legs encased in black nylon parachute pants and folded tightly underneath her, Karen Laughlin is perfectly composed.

Last night Laughlin and other dancers from the University of Texas at Austin danced in the National College Dance Festival. A major chapter in a dance career going smoothly since age 5.

But Laughlin, 22, was told April 6 she has leukemia. She returns home today to start chemotherapy at the M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston.

"I thought: 'Why me and why now?' Four weeks before the end of school, two weeks before coming to Washington. For me this is a grand exit from the university. It was more than why me, it was why now. I could have handled it after. I don't ever so much think why me--well, I do sometimes," she says in the softest of voices.

"But I just wish it didn't exist for anybody. Then it was relief, I had been worrying and afraid for two-and-a-half weeks. I had imagined everything that could be wrong, and granted this is one of the worst things that could be wrong. But I couldn't react because I didn't know what I was reacting to. After the initial emoting, then it was let's get started, let's get on with it."

What the doctor told her was that she has acute myelocytic leukemia.

"They say if you want to pick a type this is the type to have. This is supposedly the one they're most successful with in getting people into remission quickly," she says, her small, pale face half-smiling. She twists her body, an angle-less 5 feet 6 inches and 117 pounds, toward her mother, Betty Whittington, a former dance teacher, who is sitting on the floor.

It started when Laughlin came down with a sore throat the week after the university's Dance Repertory Theater participated in the Dance Festival regionals in Beaumont, Tex.

"I woke up with the sore throat about March 9," she says, and she smiles, adding, "I never could remember dates but lately I have been really remembering dates."

Antibiotics prescribed by her family doctor didn't clear it up. A second doctor, a physician in Austin, thought she might be anemic but couldn't figure out her high iron level.

"He asked me if I was overly tired lately and it was hard for me to tell because we dance five to seven hours a day. And how can you tell if you are tired from dancing or just tired? About the only thing I did notice was that climbing the stairs, my legs were more tired than usual."

He was the first to mention the word "leukemia."

"Whenever you say the word leukemia, it scares people. It doesn't scare me anymore," she says.

Her mother adds, "There have been times she has not shown all the emotions she should show. A lot of the holding up is for my benefit. We have decided we both can't do that all the time. So we have a pact: when we have to cry or show it, we do. We get angry but we don't know who to blame."

Laughlin tells her story matter-of-factly.

When her college group was uncertain of her availability, they substituted another dancer. "I had to go to Austin and watch them rehearse. I was angry, not at her but that I was not able to go. Just mad that someone else had to fill my place."

The flip side of her annoyance is confidence, inspired by her doctors and the cancer patients she has met. "It's not like we never cry. We do that. You can't spend the whole time crying. I don't even feel like crying full time."

Laughlin started studying ballet as a youngster in Houston, where she was born in the medical center--to which she will return this week. When she was 10 she spent her birthday in London, where she saw the American Ballet Theater, the Kirov, the London Festival Ballet, and the Royal Ballet. And her summers have been spent in dance classes, once with a scholarship at the Harkness Ballet, other times in master classes during a Joffrey Ballet appearance in Galveston and with the International Academy of Ballet in Lisbon.

Coming to Washington and dancing in the festival, she says, is "one of my little miracles, a silver lining in a dark cloud." Last week, after blood transfusions, her blood count was fairly stable, so the doctor let her come here.

"Also they didn't have the room ready for me, so he said go to Washington and have fun," she laughs.

Now she is only eager to start her treatment. And trying not to think about the risky adventure into the New York dance world in the fall she had dreamt about.

"I have stopped planning. Totally stopped planning, because I had planned out my college career, I had planned this, planned that. Then I got the rug pulled out from under me. I'm not planning because I don't want anyone bursting my balloon," she says.

"I hear my friends talking about going to New York or whatever and it hurts a little bit. But I have to go through this first."

She won't attend graduation ceremonies. That hurts too. It's the university's 100th anniversary, and she's the third generation of her family to go there. She's had to stop working at the university's student union, and playing on her softball and darts teams. Everything is on hold.

She is taking one final exam at the hospital, where she expects to stay for four weeks in an isolation room.

Last week, says her mother, they went together to get their hair cut. Laughlin had her shoulder-length hair cut to a wavy cap, says her mother, "because she is preparing for what the chemotherapy will do."