Fighting Cancer When You Don’t Have Cancer: 3 Tips for Comforting Cancer Patients

An old friend called this week, asking if I had any advice regarding how to help a 19-year old boy who is terminally ill with cancer. The question did not shock me. As a cancer survivor myself, I am a member of a club no one wishes to join, but a club that comes with the privilege of entrance into the most intimate aspect of life: sickness and mortality. Over the years, I have listened to countless people share the turmoil they experience as either they, or their loved one, battles this life-threatening disease. On multiple occasions, I visited a hospital room that was occupied by a cancer-fighting compatriot one day, and the next day was empty. I have been in the world of cancer too long to be shocked by the question posed by my friend; however, I will always be deeply saddened when cancer strikes, and cannot wait for the day when a cure is found.

How do you comfort someone facing cancer? I realized there are far too many people asking this question for me to remain silent. The following 3 tips are simply my own perspective – what I found helpful personally, and how I reached out to others. I hope it alleviates some of your anxiety, as you or a loved one wonders how to be there for someone who is battling cancer.

  1. Presence

Simply put: the best way to be there is to be there. There are times in every cancer

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Three days after diagnosis, and two days post-op, all I needed was family to be there with me. (Photocred: Craig Friesen)

patient’s life when you do not want to be seen, particularly by those close to you, out of
embarrassment or exhaustion, but most often a cancer patient needs to know that they are not alone in their fight. And the easiest part is that you are not even obligated to DO
anything. That is the coolest thing about presence. A phone call or letter when you are unable to be physically present is also great. One aspect of the Cancer for College scholarship application is an essay about “how cancer impacted your family.” I love reading stories about how family, friends, and entire communities come together to support one person’s battle, thus making it their battle, too. To know that you are not alone is just as powerful as any chemo treatment.

 

  1. Distraction

Let’s face it, as hard as they try, hospitals are uncomfortable places. They are not home. Everything is sterile, there are beeping contraptions attached to your body, the bed seems to have more buttons than a spaceship, and strange (but loving) people keep coming in
and out at all hours. You get the picture. It is easy to feel out of place, confined, and unsure what to do. Unlike the previous tip, this one is all about activity. Bring a little normalcy back to your friend’s life by engaging with them in their hobbies. My mom read
The Hatchet and Star Wars books with me, friends sat on the bed and played video games, and we built

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The “Bald Buddies.” Three friends who willingly shaved their heads, played video games, and had a pie fight were great at distracting me when I needed them. (Photocred: Craig Friesen)

Zoids (giant, mechanical, fighting animal, robots. Very therapeutic, actually). We even
corralled some nurses into Nerf and water fights in the halls. This is what hospital volunteers do, and are amazing at it. I will never forget a volunteer, named Tosh, whose smile, jester hat, and willingness to just play brightened my day every time I saw him. Tosh became my friend because he made those hospital rooms feel more like home, and who better to help accomplish that than loved ones who essentially are your home.

 

 

  1. Honesty

This is the hardest one. The element no one likes, but still needs. Yet like a pinch of salt added to a meal, just a little honesty about the reality of cancer enhances and deepens the
flavor of your relationship. Cancer sucks. It is harsh, scary, and no one is prepared to face it when it hits. When you go through cancer, you are often changed physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To every cancer patient, there is no reason to be ashamed or

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There will be challenges and hard talks, but stepping in to share that burden is so important. (photocred: aboutkidshealth.ca)

try to hide what is happening to you. True friends and family will never judge you, but will support you as best as possible. Let them. Cancer is a burden that is best carried by the strength of many shoulders, united FOR you and AGAINST it. There is a great poem that

someone shared with my family during our bout with cancer, and has since been shared with many of our friends in similar circumstances, which depicts what cancer cannot do (you can read it in its entirety here). The point, though, is that so often we let cancer control us by fear and the stigmatization that we need to be cautious and guarded around those battling the disease. I think that gives far too much power to cancer. The moments when I felt most loved and cared for during my battle were when people leveled with me about the reality of my diagnosis, and then made sure that I knew I was not my cancer.

 

I know this is a break from our regularly positive and happy posts about recipients who have beat cancer and have gone on to accomplish great things in college (like Yomi, Kalina, and Taylor) but we, at Cancer for College, know better than most how important it is to support one another throughout, and after, cancer. In the midst of your battle, we see your potential and want to be there to help you accomplish your dream of a college education. Keep fighting, and be sure to keep in touch with us when you fight off that cancer and are ready to get back doing what you love. We are here for you.

Cancer for College provides hope and inspiration to cancer survivors by granting college scholarships.  Since inception, we have granted over $2 million in scholarships to more than 1000 cancer survivors. To learn more about Cancer for College, and to donate to help a cancer survivor go to college, visit cancerforcollege.org.


 

Pro Pic - CircleAbout the author: Mitch Friesen is a childhood cancer survivor, CFC scholarship recipient (2011-2014), and now works for Cancer for College as their Director of Growth & Community. Mitch graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Business Management and minor in Theology. A lifelong learner and lover of adventure, when Mitch is not catching up with all of the awesome CFC recipients, he can be found enjoying the outdoors with his bombshell of a wife (Abbey), watching/playing soccer, and drinking coffee.

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The Constant Caregiver: Happy Mother’s Day

I am a mama’s boy, and proudly so. It is impossible to be otherwise when my mom has been the single greatest influence in creating my love of learning, reading, exploring, cooking…essentially everything imaginative in my life stems from the infectious joy my mom imbued to me through the years. She taught me how to not only endure challenges, but to pursue them because only through great success AND failure would I become stronger.

But I am also a mama’s boy because my mom was my constant caregiver as I fought cancer, as we fought cancer because she took on just as much pain and stress from the disease as I did. A mother’s greatest pride and fear are often simultaneously wrapped up in her children, and when I was threatened I experienced the full force of love and strength that only a mother can offer in a crisis.

  • Through silent — and often secret — tears, she journaled a combination of thoughts, prayers, and medical side effects the week she learned of my diagnosis.
  • With grit, she overcame her lifelong fear of needles in order to become my at-home nurse and administer my shots, as that was a condition of being discharged.
  • And with a mischievous grin she snuck me out of my hospital room in the middle of the night so we could watch a rare and awesome lightning storm from the playground lawn.

 

These memories are both unique and shared, as nearly all of our recipients fought cancer with the help of their mom. We asked a few of them for a special memory of their mother that we could share on this special Mother’s Day. Take a moment today to read those memories below, and then share your own Mother’s Day memory (or photo) in the comment section.

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Happy Mother’s Day! My mom with all of her kids and grandkids.

 

Sarah McNeil:

My mom was a constant source of strength for me during my treatments. I could always tell from my hospital bed which footsteps were hers coming down the hall of Levine Children’s Hospital. The mothers (and fathers and other caregivers) of children with cancer face a seemingly insurmountable number of obstacles and hardships. Most people never hesitate to call me a “survivor”, but I would not have been able to endure my treatments without my mom’s selfless love to sustain me. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! I am so grateful for you, and I love you so much.

 

Jackie Balliot:

I remember the day I was diagnosed, my family arrived at a hotel near the hospital late at night in preparation for the confirmatory scans the next day. My mom looked me straight in the eye and said “you are going to beat this, and a few years from now this is going to bring you so many amazing opportunities. you will get through this.” And of course- she was absolutely right! I love you Momma!

 

Anna Kellner:

When I was little, my mom was the sun and the stars. I thought that the entire universe revolved around her – her voice, her freckled skin, her attitude. She’d always sing to me while she cooked; our house was perpetually full of music. At some point, it became ritual for us to sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” together because no wind and no rain could keep us from each other. But then I grew up and when I was sixteen, the whole house was silent. It was the night before my first chemotherapy treatment and the silence was unbearable. We were all terrified and uncertain but there was one thing I knew for sure… There wasn’t a mountain high, valley low, or river wide enough to break our family. So I turned up that song as loud as I could and I danced down the stairs to my mama, singing at the top of my lungs, and she raced into the hall with her arms open wide and sang with me.

That’s one of those moments that I will tell my children and my children’s’ children about because it was so real and intense. It was the moment that I knew my mother’s love would never fail me.

Happy Mother’s Day, lady. I love you!

To find out how you can make a difference in the lives of cancer survivors, please visit cancerforcollege.org

 


Pro Pic - CircleAbout the author: Mitch Friesen is a childhood cancer survivor, CFC scholarship recipient (2011-2014), and now works for Cancer for College as their Director of Growth & Community. Mitch graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Business Management and minor in Theology. A lifelong learner and lover of adventure, when Mitch is not catching up with all of the awesome CFC recipients, he can be found enjoying the outdoors with his bombshell of a wife (Abbey), watching/playing soccer, and drinking coffee.

Survivor Spotlight: Jackie Balliot

I was reminded this week that some infections are not bad. Working so closely in the cancer community, and being a cancer survivor myself, it is easy to become laden with the awful reality that so many lives are forever changed by the awful, infectious disease that is cancer. However, this week I was infected by something else: gratitude.

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Jackie posing while she was still on treatment 4 years ago.

I know I say it all the time on here, but it continues to be true that the best part of my job is getting to speak with our recipients. Hearing their stories and experiences makes it easy to believe that it is entirely possible to not only defeat cancer, but thrive after — and perhaps, sometimes, because of — a cancer diagnosis. That is the impression I got after speaking with Jackie Balliot, a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill whose overwhelming gratitude has positively infected my attitude the entire week! Even as she is about to leap into life on the other side of a hospital stay, Jackie’s positivity and determination to utilize her gifts and experiences to help others is a great reminder of the adage coined by George Matthew Adams, “there is no such thing as a self made man.” We are so happy to have a small hand in Jackie’s story, and are so excited that she will be joining us on May 13 for our Casino Night in the Carolinas fundraiser.

For now, though, sit a while and read about how Cancer for College scholarship recipient Jackie Balliot is flourishing in college and using her gifts in the medical field to give back to so many people who have been similarly touched by sickness:

How are you enjoying your time at UNC Chapel Hill?

I absolutely love UNC Chapel Hill. It’s four hours from my home, so it close enough to where I can visit often but far enough away to where I’ve learned to be incredibly independent. As far as the school itself, I really love the atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly and I’ve been able to meet amazing people from several different backgrounds. I’ve actually been able to meet numerous other cancer survivors, which almost always makes for an automatic friendship! I’m on a Relay for Life committee that allows me to connect with cancer survivors in the county and tell them about our Relay event, which was a ton of fun last year. I actually got to be the keynote speaker at the Relay gala this year, which was a huge honor!

What has been one of your most memorable experiences of the past year?

Hmmmm. I would say participating in Dance Marathon last year. I’m a part of an organization called Carolina for the Kids foundation, and we raise money all year for the patients and families at UNC Children’s hospital. My committee’s job is to establish the relationships between the families and the foundation and to bring them to our big marathon at the end of the year, where we stand for 24 hours to raise money. The standing part was SO HARD, but the marathon itself was a ton of fun. When the patients from the hospital arrive at the end of the marathon, all of the participants get to see first hand where their money is going, and it makes it so worth it. My favorite part was at the very end, after standing for 24 whole hours, they revealed the total amount of money we had raised that year, and it was over half a million dollars! I’m not a huge crier but I cried my eyes out when they revealed it (which also could have been due to the lack of sleep). It it such a fantastic memory!

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Jackie telling everyone the reason she did the dance marathon.

How is your health?

I have been so lucky to be incredibly healthy all throughout college with consistently clear scans. During my treatment I had a limb-salvage surgery, so I have a metal knee and a rod through my femur and was worried about all of the walking to classes making it sore. However, it actually ended up strengthening it and now I have less problems with it than ever before!

Do you have any upcoming plans you are excited about?

I am so excited that I was recently accepted to UNC’s nursing school! It’s an extremely competitive program and I’ve been so anxious about it for the past year- but now I can take a sigh of relief and get ready to begin this summer! I’m also excited about hopefully returning to a summer camp that I am a volunteer counselor at this summer called Victory Junction, which is for children with illnesses and disabilities.

What made you choose nursing school?

When I entered college I had the intent of being pre-med, but it didn’t feel right once I started. During some check-ups and volunteering I began to observe the other members of healthcare teams more closely, and I realized that being a nurse practitioner would be a much more perfect fit. It’s sort of like the best of both worlds; I will get to work as a nurse and work very closely caring for patients and families, and once I go to graduate school I will also be able to be involved in diagnosis and prescribing medication. I definitely have the desire to work with children with cancer– I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else!

Another class of scholarship winners will be announced this summer. Do you have any advice to share with them that you wish you were told when you first entered college?  

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t adjust to college right away. I expected to instantly make friends and fall in love with the college experience, but found it extremely hard to adjust to such a new routine far away from home and I was way way out of my comfort zone- I even considered transferring. However, I eventually found my niche, and now I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

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Jackie and her friends kicking off the Relay for Life with the survivors’ lap.

You just heard some of the best advice from someone who is truly thriving. We are so excited for all that is to come for you, Jackie, as you begin another chapter in your journey to becoming a phenomenal work. See you in May at Casino Night, where you are sure to have more great stories to share!

To find out how you can make a difference in the lives of young cancer survivors, and to learn more about how you can join Jackie at Casino Night, please visit cancerforcollege.org or email Logan@cancerforcollege.org.


About the author: Mitch Friesen is a childhood cancer survivor, CFC scholarship recipient (2011-2014), and now works for Cancer for College as their Director of Growth & Community. Mitch graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Business Management and minor in Theology. A lifelong learner and lover of adventure, when Mitch is not catching up with all of the awesome CFC recipients, he can be found enjoying the outdoors with his bombshell of a wife (Abbey), watching/playing soccer, and drinking coffee.

Safe Spring Break with Sunscreen

Everyone wishes they could work at the beach but do you really want to lug all of your books, files, and laptop out there? All you really want to do is be free from all of those burdens! Right around this time every year, millions of college students wrest their intense focus away from their studies just long enough to rejuvenate themselves for the final part of the year; we call this “Spring Break.”

It is often difficult for students to understand the value of letting go of their studies for even a short time. Collegians nowadays practically live in the library and sustain themselves on a steady diet of pressure, knowledge, and coffee so that they can realize their dream of working 60 hours a week in an office for the rest of their lives. It is up to us, their friends and family, to encourage them to experience the world beyond the confines of their campus during Spring Break this year. We owe it to them to ensure that all they carry with them to the beach in Mexico, Florida, California, or Hawaii is a fresh bottle of Will Ferrell’s Super Mega Sexy Hot Tan Sunscreen.

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Bring Will Ferrell on Spring Break and you will have a legendary time!

Caring for college students is as easy as providing them with the tools they need to survive in any situation, at any time. During Spring Break, this looks like:

  • taking away the textbooks they earnestly desire to pack in their suitcase
  • building up their confidence to make new friends outside of their study group. and
  • making sure that all of their time in the sun does not lead to skin cancer.

All of this is easily accomplished with a couple bottle of Will Ferrell’s own Sunscreen. It fills up space, is a great conversation starter, looks good with any swimsuit pattern and colors, and MOST IMPORTANTLY0 keeps your skin from looking like an overcooked Cheez-it!

It is more important than ever to get college students outside this Spring Break. The future of America — and the world as we know it — depends on these graduates to be refreshed, tan, and cancer free as they take us and our country to impossibly awesome heights!

Get the Spring Break Sunscreen Special: 2 bottles of Will Ferrell’s Super Mega Sexy Hot Tan Sunscreen for only $20! Order yours at http://www.cancerforcollege.org/store.html

Even Our Sunscreen
Promo ends April 8, so get your orders in quick!

To find out how you can make a difference in the lives of young cancer survivors, please visit cancerforcollege.org.

 

Cancer Survivorship: The Journey to Complete Freedom

“You are cancer-free.”

Few words have as much power to send chills down your spine and a smile across your face as these. After months, years, or even decades of battling back and forth with a disease that threatens your very existence this news offers proof that you have, indeed, triumphed! Sometimes, raucous celebrations ensue with friends and family (in my case, there was also a water fight, with super soakers and water-filled syringes, in the halls with some of my incredible nurses) as everyone’s energy combines and crescendos until it reaches an almost dreamlike peak. Other times, it is more befitting to sit in silence, stunned that it is over; you realize that somehow your body has been tensed since you received your diagnosis, and you revel in relaxation.

However it happens, chances are you missed hearing the doctor tell you about check-ups, potential long-term effects, and everything else that goes into being a cancer survivor. All aspects of assisting people who are in remission fall under the umbrella of “survivorship,” but that does not give any indication about how such programming helps you, well, survive.

Childhood cancer survival rates in the United States have increased from less than 20% in the 1960s to almost 80% in 2010.

Science has improved by incredible leaps so that more people afflicted with cancer before adulthood actually get the chance to live a long life. The major issue we now face is not whether most children will live through cancer, but how well they will live once they do; survivorship intends to answer that question. With the recent uptick in childhood cancer survivors, there has been a distinct shift in focus by research institutions to study the long-term effects of cancer during periods of massive human development.

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City of Hope, the same hospital that cured the founder of Cancer for College and many of our recipients, designed one such program to care for and evaluate young cancer survivors over a long period of time in order to better understand and mitigate any complications that might arise. Their survivorship program utilizes the expertise of a physician, nurse practitioner, dietitian, and psychologist to provide the most holistic and practical help possible.

Cancer for College is another organization that takes survivorship seriously, picking up where hospitals stop. A vast majority of our most meaningful life experiences and aspirations occur outside the walls of a research facility, and college is a time when so many of those are born and begin to come into focus. College students face the pressure to make a difference, choose the right major, make friends, and impress parents that adding potential medical issues and the unique mentality of being a cancer survivor can easily become overwhelming. This is where Cancer for College, and other organizations like Cuck Fancer and Dear Jack Foundation, are able to provide some much needed relief and resources.

Being a part of the Cancer for College family opens many doors to help cancer survivors become healthy and thriving. Receiving a scholarship is a crucial beginning that removes some of the burden of paying for college, thus making space for creativity and freedom to figure out who they are and how they are to accomplish their dreams. Along with this comes our desire for our recipients, and all childhood cancer survivors, to never feel like they are alone. That is why we love to encourage our recipients to get together with each other, past recipients, and mentors who understand what it is like to actually live daily as a cancer survivor.

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Past, current, and brand new scholarship recipients join Craig and Will for a photo in 2012.

If you have a college-bound cancer survivor in your life, or are one yourself, please apply for our scholarship. Head to www.cancerforcollege.org/application.html for more details and to begin the application. The deadline is January 31 so you have no time to lose! We would love to help you along your journey of survivorship.

The Holiday Hospital: How to Love Christmas even in a Cancer Ward

By: Mitch Friesen, CFC recipient 2011 & Director of Growth and Community

Music in malls, restaurants, and on the radio all over the country tout this season as “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many people, that is exactly what it is, coming together with family and friends for all sorts of blissful shenanigans. Christmas is supposed to be a time of relaxation, rejuvenation, and reconnection. However, for some people every year – like me and my family back in 2001 – the holidays feel more like the embodiment of a Batman villain: smiling out of one side of your face and grimacing out the other. You are stuck in this surreal place wondering how so many emotions could be packed into one person, which one you should portray, and how all this even happened.

You see, we are told that cancer changes everything, that it takes so much, but we do not expect it to take away the joy of the holidays.  To us, those are sacred times for memories to be made and traditions to endure. All of the preparation that goes into creating that memorable space came forcibly to a halt when I was diagnosed with an advanced stage III form of B-cell lymphoma on December 14, 2001 (my sister’s birthday, no less). The next week was a blur of medical information and shock that I just won a lottery of an illness. As our new reality came into focus we realized that Christmas was just around the corner, and this year would be spent in a pediatric oncology ward.

How do you deal with a situation like this: recognizing that there is a pall cast over a normally-carefree and happy time, and that it is unavoidable and for the health of a child? It can be a scary and overwhelming dilemma, especially if you keep those feelings bottled up inside you where no one else can help. The truth is, though, that as a family you go through these trials together, and everyone is feeling the exact same way. Even so, each member of a family (and the many friends who would be by your side in an instant) has something unique to offer as part of the solution – however temporary – to hospital holiday. The point is to do so together.

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For me and my family, this meant decorating the room with our own tiny Christmas tree, lights, and wintry window art. Everyone also unwrapped presents in that little hospital room, cramping the space with bodies and wrapping paper, but worth it because there was no way that anyone could mistake the life overflowing from all of us. I probably felt nauseous at some point, and a nurse periodically dropped by to change my IV, reminding us of our location. When faced with having Christmas in a cancer ward, make it as good as possible, but even more important is for your holiday to be memorable. Time with our loved ones is too precious a gift to waste waiting for a perfect moment that will never come. May you be able to seize a wonderful Christmas for others and yourself, wherever you may be.

At this time of year, we especially want to remember how cancer has altered the holiday plans, not to mention lives, of so many families, including many future members of the Cancer for College family. This Christmas, please join us in giving the lasting gift of a college education to deserving cancer survivors (donate HERE). Have a Merry Christmas!

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.

~Peg Bracken

Survivor Spotlight: Jacklyn Balliot

Imagine you are an 11-year-old girl, excited to join a new basketball team and meet new friends. But you’re told that one of your teammates has cancer, and over the course of the next two years, you watch her slip away. The community is forced to say goodbye to her, as she crosses over from this world to the next. Soon, two more kids in your tight-knit town become stricken with cancer. One of them, Corey, a dear friend. You see how they suffer, wonder at the injustice of cancer attacking not only children, but multiple kids in your area. Never realizing that you yourself will be the fourth child in your community, in the span of just a few years, to be diagnosed with cancer.

That girl is Jacklyn Balliot, a vibrant and athletic young woman who recently celebrated her 18th birthday, is starting freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and looks forward to medical school after college. Just two years ago, as a high school sophomore, Jacklyn was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – bone cancer.

“For weeks before my diagnosis, I had experienced excruciating pain in my left leg,” Jacklyn shares with Cancer for College. “Each doctor that I visited assumed that it was either a cheerleading injury or simply growing pains. Admittedly, I suspected the pain was due to something much more serious…”

For the next nine months, Jacklyn would undergo chemotherapy and a limb salvage surgery to treat the bone cancer which began just above her left knee. “I could not believe that this is what the other children who had cancer were going through,” she recalls. “The treatments were brutal, to say the least.”

Her dear friend, Corey, was battling his leukemia at a hospital just 10 minutes from where Jacklyn was being treated. Despite fighting for his own life, he would visit Jacklyn in the hospital. The two friends stayed in close contact during their treatments, joking about “favorite” medicines and “delicious” hospital food.

“Corey continued to encourage me throughout my treatments, even when he was battling for his own life,” remembers Jacklyn. “He would always tell me he was praying for me and that ‘God’s got this’.”

November 2012 brought Jacklyn the best news and the worst news: just a few days after she was officially declared cancer-free, Corey lost his fight. She and her community had to say goodbye to yet another beautiful young person taken from them far too soon.

This year, in addition to graduating from high school and starting her first year of college, a healthy Jacklyn is working to launch a non-profit organization, The FISH Foundation (Friends in Sickness & Health), created in loving memory of the three kids lost  — Karla, Madison and Corey — with a special nod to Corey whose last name was Fish.

“The primary goal of my foundation is to provide financial support to the families of children battling cancer,” details Jacklyn. “Witnessing how the outrageous costs of fighting cancer impacted my family broke my heart, which is why I aspire to help other families in need. To make my foundation unique, I would also like to provide the child fighting cancer with a gift of their choosing.” Jacklyn reports that she’s recently found the extra help needed to get the FISH Foundation off the ground and is excited for the next steps.

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Jacklyn with her Mom after high school graduation, 2014

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Jacklyn gets special permission from her doctors to fly with her Varsity Cheer team on Senior Night.

Jacklyn is our first perpetual scholarship winner from the Carolinas, which means she will receive a $4,000 scholarship every year for four years from Cancer for College. We wish Jacklyn, and all of our scholarship recipients, the very best of luck in the coming days and years. Thank you to all who support Cancer for College and allow us to be a part of the very bright futures of these young cancer survivors.