Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM) is recognized every September by childhood cancer organizations around the world. Concordia University Ann Arbor is sharing the stories of five current students who beat childhood cancer and are pursuing careers and callings as a direct result of their experiences.
These Concordians embody grit, resilience, trust, and faith in God to the utmost degree. Wise beyond their years, they have inspiring lessons to share from their experiences.
A community of support means everything.
Meet Suzie Spence (’24)
Spence was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) when she was four years old. After two and a half years of chemotherapy treatments, steroids, and other medicines, Suzie was declared cancer-free.
“I don’t remember much, but I remember being in the hospital a lot and the nurses who helped me,” said Spence, from Clinton, Michigan.
Once nurse in particular who worked one-on-one with her had a significant impact on Spence’s battle and recovery. Now in remission for 12 years, she continues to keep in touch with this nurse, who even came to her recent high school graduation party.
Today, Spence is in her first weeks as a college student, navigating her freshman year at Concordia University Ann Arbor. She’s studying to become a Child Lift Specialist, a decision hugely influenced by the nurse who cared so well for her during her years in the hospital as well as the Child Life Specialist who distracted her with activities and a Hope bead after every appointment.
“I have such an appreciation for the people who helped me get through my cancer journey, and I want to help others in my life as many people did for me and my family,” said Spence. “Having cancer is hard, you have to be resilient and tough, but I was able to get through it with the help of the nurses, doctors, and faith.”
Spence says she was also greatly blessed by the continuous support of friends and her church, and most of all, her family. She’s eager to help children who are in a hard health situation like she once was when she becomes a Child Life Specialist.
Childhood cancer is not rare. Lead with empathy.
Meet Paxton Green (’22)
Paxton Green was two years old when she was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS). She spent a year in chemotherapy, radiation, and undergoing multiple surgeries until she was cancer-free.
That wasn’t the end of Green’s cancer journey. Eight years later, when Green was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma in the humerus of her right arm. So began again the long months of chemotherapy and invasive surgeries, living much of her 6th grade year in the hospital.
“I often hear people call childhood cancer rare, but it doesn’t feel rare, especially once you enter that community,” said Green, from Portage, Michigan. “I know so many people in my hometown, and then here at Concordia I have met many students that have similar stories to me. It has been great to connect with them on that level.”
According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation (2019), cancer is the number one leading cause of death by disease among children. Each day, 43 kids in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cancer, and only 4% of the billions of dollars the government spends annually on cancer research is directed towards treating childhood cancer.
After spending so much of her adolescence hospital and having such positive experiences with Child Life Specialists, Green is preparing to become one herself. Concordia’s CLS program mixed with a faith and learning curriculum and Christ-centered campus is was sealed the deal on Green’s decision to attend Concordia.
“Concordia’s motto is Live Uncommon, and that is a motto I feel I have lived my entire life,” said Green, who is studying to become a Child Life Specialist. “I love being at a campus that embraces differences and diversity and is all about fellowship.”
Green says that Concordia has catered to what she’s good at and has never made her feel like she couldn’t do something because of having cancer or her physical disability with her arm. She recalled a specific example of a time her class was being trained in CPR, and the skills instructor shared with her alternative positions that might work better for her, without drawing attention or making her feel like she wasn’t capable of doing the procedure because of her arm.
“Cancer definitely doesn’t define who a person is. I’m more than just what my arm looks like,” said Green.
Green knows first hand the fear and anxiety that comes with being in a hospital, and is eager to apply that to her career as a Child Life Specialist.
“Day to day, my experience has helped me to be more empathetic, because you never know what people are going through unless you get to know them.”
Tough situations can reveal career opportunities.
Meet Misa Nakamura (’21)
Misa Nakamura was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (HD) in 2010 as a teenager. She spent three months in the hospital and three months in outpatient treatment as she underwent chemotherapy.
Nakamura—a Concordia international student from Mie, Japan—has been in remission for almost ten years. As she reflects on the experience, she says there were definitely tough and bad experiences while in treatment but also some positive experiences, like meeting new friends and meeting a Child Life Specialist for the first time.
“If I had not experienced childhood cancer, I wouldn’t have known about Child Life Specialists and the Child Life Program, and I might not be here at Concordia to study Child Life,” said Nakamura. “I was recently made aware that there are actually many students here who have had a similar experience to mine. It is good to have someone you can share your experience with.”
Nakamura says there are many ways to support children with medical conditions. This summer, she donated hair to a Japanese non-profit that offers a full-order medical wig for children under 18 years of age, completely free of charge.
“I am thankful just to be healthy, to be able to spend time with my family and friends, or to be able to do just something ‘normal’ that I couldn’t do when I was sick.”
We should all embrace child-like faith.
Meet Billy Blair (’20, ’22)
Billy Blair was 2 years old when he was diagnosed with Childhood Leukemia. After two and a half years of chemotherapy, spinal taps, and medical procedures, Blair was declared cancer-free when he was five years old.
“I remember bits and pieces of it, just because it wasn’t a fun time,” said Blair, from St. Charles, Michigan. “I remember being really confused because I came into this room of balloons and celebration and I didn’t understand what that meant. They said I was cancer-free and I thought, ‘Okay, cool, I get to go home.'”
Now looking back at that celebration, I realize what a great moment that was, that God was able to see me and my family through and answer our prayers.
Blair, who earned his bachelor’s in business at Concordia and is now pursuing his MBA, says that even though he experienced cancer at such a young age, it impacts his daily actions to practice an attitude of gratitude and to recognize that God is on the move and working through our lives in every situation.
“When you have cancer at such a young age, you don’t always realize what a big deal it is. Kids have such heart and drive without even realizing it, because they are trusting their family, and the doctors and nurses to help them,” said Blair. “We need to have that attitude, of child-like faith. I think that’s how we should live our lives.”
Blair says that no matter how old we are, we don’t know what God has in store for us or the plans he has for us, so we just have to trust Him.
As a member of the Concordia baseball team, Blair says he has to remind himself and his teammates to recognize the bigger picture and not get caught up in the small things.
“When adversity hits, whatever it is—school work or losing a big game—no matter win or lose, we can give glory to God. Life is so much bigger than sports, or school, or a disease or illness. That’s what I like to try to tell my teammates. It’s an opportunity to glorify God.”
Blair eagerly anticipates the day when he can ring another bell, celebrating going home to his eternal home with Jesus in heaven.
Use your experiences as inspiration to give back.
Meet Isabelle Petit (’23)
Isabelle Petit was three when she was diagnosed with an Optic Pathway Glioma brain tumor. When she was five, she started 60 weeks of chemotherapy.
Petit had a few years of stability, then had another 60 weeks of chemotherapy at the age of 10 to stop the growth of the tumor. She has been stable ever since 2012.
“Being a childhood cancer survivor has inspired me to help other children, who are going through similar things that I did. I plan to help these kids when I become a Child Life Specialist,” said Petit, who is from Dexter, Michigan.
Petit says that while she was in the hospital, there was always a Child Life Specialist helping her and who completely inspired her to do what she did someday.
“Being a a childhood cancer survivor definitely lead me to CUAA. Concordia has such a great Child Life program, I thought it was a perfect fit for me!”
Concordia’s Family Life Education program offers a Child Life Specialist bachelor’s concentration. CUAA also offers a Master’s in Child Life, the first graduate program in southeast Michigan.
— Rachel Thoms served on Concordia University's Strategic Communications team from 2015-2022. Any inquiries about this story can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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