Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship

by Children's Cancer Association
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Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Chemo Pal Mentor Program Delivers Friendship
Levi and Jay's First Time Meeting
Levi and Jay's First Time Meeting

Diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in September 2008, Levi went through tough chemotherapy treatments, nausea, severe allergic reactions, and painful shots. During it all, his Chemo Pal, Jay, was there to distract Levi and help him think about the future. Over 10 years later, Levi is now a successful young man. This is his story.

Like most kids, I have a long, complicated story but for me, somewhere in there also involves cancer.

When I was thinking about writing this, I realized I could take it two ways:

I could talk about my medical journey, about how I went through three and a half years of Chemo, missed my middle school years and had to fight for my life.

I went from being a normal kid to staring at a hospital ceiling.

Everyone is scared of different things... To this day, I’m still scared of waking up in the middle of the night with a fever thinking I have to get rushed to the ER. I’m scared of the piercing sound of the IV machine pumping chemo through me. I’m scared of the adrenaline I get every time someone comes near my port.

At 12 years old I had to process the thought that there was a possibility that I wouldn’t make it in the end because there was no definite answer. But there is another side of this difficult time – about things that went right – and how that helped shape me to become the person I am today.

I Wouldn’t Change A Thing

When I think about how I went from being a 12-year-old cancer patient to fulfilling my dream to become a certified chef and sommelier, I think about the people who stood by my side and how Children’s Cancer Association (CCA) connected me to the power of joy and friendship - and that’s where my Chemo Pal Mentor Jay comes in.

I’ll be honest, when I first met Jay, I thought he was going to be this fun hip guy so you can imagine how surprised I was when this old guy walked in.

At first, I didn’t think we’d have much in common—but it turns out, Jay was exactly who I needed. Truth is, I am a bit of an old soul, and that helped Jay and me connect.

I’ll admit there were tough days, it’s not always easy to be happy when you have literal poison getting pumped through your veins… Jay understood that there were days when we would just sit in silence but he understood it was still important to be there for me.

When you support CCA you’re not just providing a buddy for a child with cancer, you’re creating life-long relationships… every time a chemo pal enters that hospital, they are given the opportunity to enrich a child’s life, providing elements of wellness and hope.

I believe the impact of the Chemo Pal Program goes beyond just the child and greatly affects the mentor as well.

Jay was there for my last chemo appointment, my high school graduation, my culinary graduation and my 21st birthday. I hope that he will be there for my wedding and to meet my first child.

I told my mom once that if I could go back in time and stop my cancer from coming that I wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t have met Jay. I would go through all that pain and fear and chemo all over again just to meet Jay.

This is how important Jay and the power of joy are to me. They encouraged me to keep moving forward and pursue my dreams with confidence.

Survivorship

Since I have been in remission, I have had time to think about my journey and one moment comes to me over and over again.

Every kid who visits the CCA Caring Cabin gets a personalized rock.

During your stay, you take a long walk down this path that leads to a lake, and you decide where to place your rock along the path. There are thousands of rocks, each in a different place, set there by a different kid, some who have survived, others who have not. It’s an emotional walk.

As I was walking down this path with my family, I passed these three twigs that called themselves “trees,” they were weak and frail and nothing impressive, but then a thought occurred to me: One day these twigs will grow, they will grow tall and develop strong roots and they will be healthy.

So, I placed my rock between these three twigs to symbolize MY journey and to represent my fight for survivorship.

I recently thought about that rock and wondered about those trees. I asked CCA to send me a photo.

This is the new picture of my rock. And, those aren’t twigs anymore.

When I saw that picture, I couldn’t believe it. I ran downstairs to my mom to show her. The tree is thriving, just like me!

I think about Jay and what he has done for me and I can only imagine the hundreds of other kids like me who have these amazing relationships with their chemo pals – it’s CCA that brings us all together – forever.

Being a survivor, I often think about what things would have been like if Jay wasn’t part of my story.

I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.

Chemotherapy is full of variables, every little aspect of it has a ripple effect that may or may not be your cure.

For example - If I wasn’t taken to the hospital when I did would I still be a survivor?

If I didn’t go through chemotherapy would I still be a survivor?

So, if I took one variable away like Jay, would I still be standing here... a survivor?

He helped save my life and I owe all that to CCA.

Now I am fully pursuing my passions. I get to work in gorgeous Oregon wine country. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and for supporting CCA’s programs.

Levi and Jay Today
Levi and Jay Today
Levi Next to a Tree at the Caring Cabin
Levi Next to a Tree at the Caring Cabin
Levi's Tree Today
Levi's Tree Today

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Shaun was nominated as one of CCA's yearly Heroes just weeks before he died. We are deeply saddened by his death, but incredibly grateful to have captured his vibrant spirit for the world to see.

This is the story of Shaun. Son of Katiann, Brother of Jeremiah. Hero to CCA.

**

Shaun’s silly antics created constant laughter. He loved playing with trains, construction vehicles, LEGOs, and dinosaurs. But above all, he loved firefighters, perhaps because they embody many of the same qualities he was known for: bravery in the face of daunting circumstances, integrity, strength, and infinite love for family and friends.

Diagnosed with medulloblastoma at the age of four, Shaun’s treatment was rigorous and difficult, but he never once complained. In fact, his main concerns consisted of knowing when he could play with toys and when the next Amazon package would arrive at the house.

His mom, Katiann, was always impressed by his strength and ability to laugh even when he didn’t feel well. “He never complained about going to the hospital or being poked with needles. He was always making people laugh. He made the nurses laugh a lot.”

Firefighters Can Be Chemo Pals Too

Shaun’s time at the hospital was made even brighter by his Chemo Pal, Tommy. The day they were first matched, Shaun had no idea a real firefighter was about to step into his room. Their CCA match supervisor recalls the moment they met:

“The day Tommy and I arrived at the hospital, Shaun was curled up under a dinosaur blanket and refused to speak. However, as soon as he heard I had brought him a Chemo Pal who was a real-life firefighter, he slowly began to emerge from his cocoon. Then, when he saw the bag full of toys, all hesitation fell by the wayside.”

From that moment on, Shaun began to come out of his shell. On one of his better days, he went on an exclusive tour of Tommy’s fire station. Highlights included sitting in the fire engine and using a fire hose to knock down safety cones. Shaun’s visit was a highlight for Tommy as well.

“When we showed him the fire engine his face lit up and he was smiling ear to ear. He was just an awesome kid,” Tommy said. “It’s so obvious that there was no shortage of love in his life. He had to be so brave, but he was also a kid and found so much joy in playing. He had a big heart and kept in mind the core values his mother taught him, like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

Shooting Hoops with the Blazers

Another of Shaun’s greatest experiences was attending Blazer games as a guest of CCA. Over the course of his treatment, he attended as many as he had the energy for and took the game very seriously. Katiann recalls the focus with which he would watch the games:

“The Blazer games were something for him to look forward to. Listening to the people cheer and the atmosphere put him in good spirits.”

A tour of the Trail Blazer Practice Facility with Meyers Leonard was yet another experience where Shaun was in his element. Despite needing a walker, he was out on the court with the rest of the kids dribbling and showing off his skills.

Memories New and Old

With so much uncertainty surrounding Shaun’s health, creating memories was Katiann’s top priority. CCA helped make that easier by matching the family with a sponsor during Joy for the Holidays, CCA’s holiday support program.

Holiday gifts for each member of the family were delivered straight to their home. For Katiann, it was a relief to know she could focus on creating beautiful memories. “It was hard trying to make Christmas special for my kids without having a job. CCA made that worry go away and we are forever thankful.”

The family was also scheduled to visit the Caring Cabin. Sadly, Shaun died before their visit, but in keeping with their tradition of making memories, Katiann and Jeremiah, visited the Caring Cabin to celebrate Shaun’s life.

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Amanda and Chemo Pal Christine
Amanda and Chemo Pal Christine

 

First impressions can be deceiving—especially in the case of Amanda. Beneath this polite 16-year-old’s reserved demeanor, there’s a wicked sense of humor—just ask her Chemo Pal, Christina. “She’s so funny,” she said. “The text messages I get from her are hilarious!”

A Chemo Pal to Connect With

 

Humor and positivity help Amanda tremendously as she manages her thalassemia, a blood disorder that requires constant monitoring and frequent transfusions. Christina is there to help too, providing friendship and support on long treatment days.

 

The two pals love to play Yahtzee and have been known to indulge in a little trash talking when the competition gets fierce. They also share a love for the Portland Trail Blazers and spend a lot of time chatting about Amanda’s favorite players, CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.

Her Family’s Support

When it comes to school, Amanda is a fierce competitor and works hard to maintain her 4.0 GPA. In her free time, she enjoys reading, watching TV, and practicing Tae Kwon Do. (She can even chop a piece of wood in half!) Family time is important to her too. “My family has done so much for me,” she said. “With their support, I know I can get through just about anything.”

 

Amanda says she’s also grateful for the support of her medical team and plans to follow in their footsteps by going into pediatrics someday. “I’ve met so many great doctors and nurses in the hospital. They’re really inspiring.”

 

For the doctors and nurses who are lucky enough to know this wise young lady, the feeling is mutual.

 

The support provided to teens and kids like Amanda is possible because of your generous donations. Donate today and for the month of April only, new and monthly donations will be doubled!

 

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Seven Years and Counting – Chemo Pals Olivia and Kimberlee

Olivia and Kimberlee are kindred spirits despite being years apart in age. They love art, dancing, and share a passion for the lemonade from McMenamins. Olivia fondly thinks of Kimberlee’s son as a nephew of her own. They’ve also been through a lot together, for seven years, Kimberlee was Olivia’s Chemo Pal Mentor.

Taking the Chance on A Chemo Pal

In 2010, Olivia learned that she was born without an immune system. She spent multiple days visiting Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland receiving monthly steroid treatments and chemo treatments every six months. Her treatment would allow her to be outpatient for the most part, but complications from the lack of an immune system often inhibited her day to day life.

Olivia has been in treatment so long, she can remember the days before Randall Children’s Hospital was even built and many of the nurses have become some of her good friends. So when Olivia was approached to consider signing up for a Chemo Pal, she thought, “Why not? It would be another person on my team.”

Meeting Kimberlee

Olivia had two Chemo Pals before Kimberlee came into the picture, but if you were to ask Olivia, she would say that  Kimberlee was worth the wait.

“When I was younger, I was homeschooled. As part of my credits for PE, I would play Dance Central on Xbox 360.  Kimberlee would come over and we would play for two hours. She would help me get my credits in. Then we would relax and paint each other’s nails.

We experimented with so many crafts and hobbies. She would help me with projects and homework.  Kimberlee is just caring, loving, and funny. She’s like an older sister who isn’t judge-y. As long as my choices don’t harm me or other people, she’s got my back since day one.”

Even when Olivia was too sick to dance, the two friends would spend their time together folding paper and chatting, achieving the astounding feat of folding 1,000 paper cranes.

Becoming A Chemo Pal

For Kimberlee the choice to become a Chemo Pal was deliberate and something she had thought about for many years. In college, she heard about CCA over the radio and decided then and there that she would make the commitment to become a Chemo Pal.

Seven years later, one of the greatest joys in her life has been watching Olivia grow into an artistic, honest, and vivacious young woman. “I learned that as a Chemo Pal, you never know what your mentee might need, so I had to figure out how to go with the flow.

We developed a bond where we could be very real with each other and I learned how to ask questions, but also sit in the silence. I learned that I needed to bring sweatpants because Olivia wanted to dance for exercise! She is so competitive, but I wouldn’t let her win. Because she was sick, people would always let her win, but I didn’t make her sickness the reason she won.”

Kimberlee recognizes that her relationship with Olivia offered another layer of support not just to Olivia, but to Olivia’s family as well. “As Olivia started becoming older and she was rebelling and just being a kid, I was able to give her parents the platform to give advice in a way that would come from a friend. Olivia’s grandfather was also very sick at the time and Olivia’s mom, Janet, could walk away and do whatever else she needed to do without worrying about Olivia. And there were times Janet just needed to cry, and I was there. I had no judgment for them.”

Another Person in Your Corner

Today, Olivia and Kimberlee work full-time jobs, but they text often and make sure to meet up for coffee or their favorite lemonade.

Wise in more ways than one, Olivia has sound advice for anyone considering a Chemo Pal. “I had a Chemo Pal that didn’t work, but it really takes a village to deal with anything we have to deal with. It never hurts to have another person in your corner and that’s what you’re gaining. Another person in your corner. That’s not just the Chemo Pals, it’s everyone at CCA, it’s warm and welcoming the second you open the door. You’re gaining an amazing person and a whole different perspective on life. We add to each other’s lives and it’s a two-way street.”

Donate today to support matches like Olivia's and Kimberlee's!

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Adam and George's Match Day
Adam and George's Match Day

The Makings of a Chemo Pal

13 years in the sailing industry has done George some good. It’s allowed him to meet a lot of people and travel around the world. There are 195 countries in the world, and he plans to see them all. Through his job, he met and befriended a single mom and her child, Robbie. On the surface, it was impossible to tell, but Robbie was very sick, and at the age of 19 he passed away.

“Robbie was a strong individual despite knowing he’d die and that stuck with me forever. Near the end of his life, I finally understood how much of an impact his illness had on the family for 17 years. I didn’t know how good I had it until I met him and found perspective. When he passed, I asked his mom about the organization that made the biggest difference in their lives, and she said, ‘Children’s Cancer Association.’”

The inner workings of the universe seemed to draw George towards volunteering as a Chemo Pal, and in 2015 he met Adam, who was diagnosed with Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).

Why Being Present Matters

George describes his Chemo Pal with an endearing tone, “Adam is a homebody, he likes to be around his family. He gets strength from being around people he knows. He is shy, but if you spend enough time with him, it’s apparent that an inner kid is trying to jump out. The best times we’ve had were when I’ve made it comfortable enough to allow him to shine. He loves Connect Four and Battleship. It’s great to see that spark, and I think I gave him a different perspective on ways to have fun. His favorite games involve the challenge of strategy and push his mental capabilities; which was helpful in the hospital where there was a lot of waiting.”

But it wasn’t all pure fun, George struggled to learn the ins and outs of what it meant to be a Chemo Pal. “I put a ton of pressure on myself because there was a job to do. I had to improve the situation, that was important to me. I wanted to live up to the high expectations of a Chemo Pal. It was later that I realized it could also be fun. Just exist and be there for Adam. I had to work at not letting the challenges bother me personally. When I realized how much his family was going through and that it wasn’t about me, I learned a lot.”

Their match was a benefit for them both. While George grew through understanding Adam’s struggles, Adam came out of his shell and discussed with George profound issues and life questions. Three and a half years of treatment later, Adam was finally given the best news anyone could ask for; he was in remission.

Unmasking Joy

George reflected on his experience and realized it’s the little things that mattered. “In the weirdest way, seeing Adam and his family go through so much hardship helped me to understand the pure joy in the smallest things. The joy of just having a good day, in treatment ending, in being released from the hospital. I saw joy in the tiniest details that I would never have considered, and that blew me away.

They found their courage and joy through the treatment process, an appreciation for their journey. You can’t see this and not be a changed person. You see them at their best and their worst. And if you don’t leave feeling better about humanity, then you’re an [absurd] person. It was a privilege to have a window into that and see the human spirit. He still has a long road ahead of him, but it was real, unmasked joy that I saw.

George and Adam’s story has advice for everyone in it. Stay present, even during the most challenging times, because you could be opening the door to some truly amazing experiences with people you never would have expected.

Chemo Pal matches like Adam and George’s are only possible because of the generosity of our community and support from people just like you. Please consider donating today and help facilitate more Chemo Pal matches.

Adam and George On the Last Day of Their Match
Adam and George On the Last Day of Their Match

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Organization Information

Children's Cancer Association

Location: Portland, OR - USA
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Twitter: @CCAJoyRx
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Children's Cancer Association
Portland, Oregon United States

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