A place for Cancer for College Scholars, their caregivers, and the entire CFC Family to tell their stories.

Beyond the Medical Field

March 14, 2022 | by Emeline Beltran

When I was diagnosed with leukemia 20 years ago, I felt physically and emotionally safe when receiving treatment from my care team at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. They were attentive, kind, and ensured that I was receiving high-quality care. My experience inspired me to pursue a medical career. At the early age of 7, I was determined to become either an oncologist or oncology nurse to take care of the next generations of pediatric oncology patients. 

I was serious about this pursuit until my senior year of high school. When researching college majors and reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses, I realized that I didn’t enjoy science, which is a necessary foundation to all medical careers. The major I was most drawn to was communications because of my strengths in writing, public speaking, and my yearning to connect with new people and places. I didn’t think I could give back to the pediatric cancer community with my skill set, but soon realized there are so many careers and professional opportunities available beyond the medical field. 

This list is not extensive, but here are some general career fields that play an important role in pediatric cancer.

Social Services

There are many jobs inside the hospital that don’t directly involve medicine, but are still important to a child’s cancer trajectory, such as social workers or child life specialists. Some hospitals have enrichment programs specialized for children with cancer, and those would require program coordinators and directors. Healthcare administrators don’t work directly with patients’ treatment plans, but they do use complex organization and time management skills to ensure flow within the hospital. 

Related Majors: Child Development, Social Work, Psychology, Sociology, Public Health, Business Administration

Nonprofit Organizations

Instead of profiting off their audiences, nonprofit organizations use funds from donors to provide programming and resources to the communities they serve. There are several nonprofits specializing in pediatric cancer, such as Cancer for College. Nonprofit organizations typically have departments and roles in marketing, communications, administration, and events, but their most important is development, which is their fundraising department. 

Related Majors: Communication, Business Administration, Marketing

Content Creation and Media 

The advancement of technology has enabled content creators to make a career in social media, YouTube, blogging, and more! The options are endless in content creation. You can either be your own brand and post YouTube videos and blog posts about cancer, or you can publish/produce your own books and movies about childhood cancer. While the latter is competitive and a long-term process to make it into the silver screens, we NEED more childhood cancer representation in the media!  You can also start a small business that makes products for pediatric cancer– such as sewn goods or art. 

Related Majors: Art, Journalism, Film

Academia and Research

There are so many unknowns about pediatric cancer. How does the media portray children with cancer? What are the psychological effects of siblings when they visit their sibling at the hospital? How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected leukemia cells? If you want your career to both ask and answer these questions, then consider a career in academia and become a professor. Professors teach college, graduate, and doctoral students; and specialize in a particular subject. Depending on the university they are employed at, academia is a balance of teaching, research, and community/university service. Some universities emphasize one area more than others.

Related Majors: Whichever you’re interested in! To further narrow down your topic, find professors in your university who research pediatric cancer, or anything similar. 

Health Education

If you still have a knack for pursuing a field in health but don’t want patients of your own nor responsibilities with medicine, consider a career as a health educator.  Health educators work at community organizations, universities, school districts, and hospitals to promote healthy habits, disseminate complex health information, and advocate health for all. 

Related Majors: Public Health, Communications

Whether you are conducting research, creating art, or coordinating fundraising events, there are many professions available beyond the medical field that positively impacts the pediatric cancer community. While each role is different, the common thread that connects everyone is the passion to advocate and amplify the voices of childhood cancer patients and survivors. No matter which role you take, you are making a huge difference! Good luck with your future endeavors! 

Emeline

Emeline was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was four and has been in remission since she was seven. She is a first-generation Filipina-American born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County. Emeline received her BA in Photo Communications from Cal State Fullerton and will receive her MA in Communication Studies from Cal State LA in May 2022. Communication Studies is Emeline’s main discipline because she is fascinated by how people connect by sharing stories of their own upbringing, values, and cultures. One of her most recent accomplishments is becoming an employee at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which is the hospital she received treatment from! Some of Emeline’s long-term goals are to receive a doctorate degree, explore different countries (after the pandemic fades out), and own a dog (preferably a corgi).

If you’re a CFC Scholar, and you’d like to contribute to this blog, please send your post or idea to melody@cancerforcollege.org.

To support Cancer for College Scholars, please visit https://www.classy.org/give/153059/#!/donation/checkout.

Photo credits: Karsten Winegeart, Tim Marshall, Annie Sprattlilartsy, & Glenn Carstens-Peters

How I Try to Give Back

February 16, 2022 | by Maddie Sargent

I had a very different childhood than other kids because I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, or ALL, when I was six years old. 

After many setbacks, my doctor said a bone marrow transplant was my only chance of survival, because I was so far off the treatment protocol. Here I am now, over 13 years later, and still cancer-free!

When I was in treatment, nurses were the only people I got to interact with, aside from my immediate family. The nurses allowed me to perform many Hannah Montana concerts for them, complete coloring books, and even paint their nails. Their support, along with that of my family, helped me have a positive attitude throughout my entire illness.

I hope to one day work as a pediatric oncology nurse and be the same positive influence on children with cancer. I decided from that young age that I wanted to help other kids and their families who are going through the same experience that I had to. That is how I intend to use my talents to make the world a better place in the future, but instead of waiting for the future, I’m trying my best to make it a better place now.

When I was 11 years old, I started doing public speaking for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Over the years, I have given over 50 speeches for them, in groups that ranged from a couple hundred to several thousand people. By giving these speeches, I was able to help the organization raise a tremendous amount of money in order to fund families who are currently battling cancer, as well as help aid in research to find a cure for this terrible disease.

After giving some of those speeches, people have stopped me to tell me I inspired them to help fundraise and try to find a cure. I believe sharing my story with others makes the world a better place because it gives people hope and also shows them a different perspective.  

I’m also trying to make the world better by helping people be physically healthy.During my freshman year at East Carolina, I would go to the gym often to attend fitness classes. One of the instructors there noticed me in her classes and asked if I was interested in teaching fitness classes myself. I thought this would be a great way for me to help other people— by helping them stay physically fit.

However, this was no easy task.

I had to add a group fitness class on top of my other classes because I had to be certified before I started teaching. I also needed to study for the ACE test to receive my certification.  This past summer, I was happy to pass the test, and I started teaching classes last fall.

Teaching fitness classes is one of my favorite things to do at college, because it helps many people along their fitness journeys. However, it does come with its own set of challenges. One day in class I had a mix of college-aged and middle-aged students, as well as an 80-year-old man with asthma. Teaching this class was a challenge, as I had to create a workout that would be impactful for every participant there.

I know very well that being active can help with treatment protocols, because I lived through it.  When I was on the bone marrow floor, we got a plastic foot for every 10 laps we walked through the hallway. Since I was active before my transplant and my mom kept walking with me every day afterwards, I never needed the help of the physical therapist. 

I remember my doctor telling my mom he was impressed at my level of physical activity, and thought it would help my body to heal faster.  I think teaching my fitness classes is already helping people, including myself, to be physically fit, and I hope I’m able to use my certification to help patients in the future, too.

Throughout my life, I have enjoyed helping others by giving speeches to spread awareness and by teaching fitness classes. I know that what I am doing is leaving a positive impact on other people.

After graduation, I hope to continue to help others by following a nursing career path. As someone who’s been on the other side of treatment, I understand how much the attitude of nurses impacts the patient.

I hope to one day give hope to children and their families who are going through what is likely the most difficult time of their lives. 

Maddie Sargent is a Leukemia Survivor and junior at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. She is currently a nursing-intended major, and hopes to one day become a pediatric oncology nurse. When she’s not in class or studying she has many different hobbies, including working out, reading, and spending time with friends and family.

If you’re a CFC Scholar, and you’d like to contribute to this blog, please send your post or idea to melody@cancerforcollege.org.

To support Cancer for College Scholars, please donate below.

 

 

 

 

Photo credits: Photo by Xan Griffin, Patty Brito, Kane Reinholdtsen, Dylan Gillis,Ross Sneddon

A Selection of Poems from Scholar Michael Mahin

January 25, 2022 | by Michael Mahin

Michael Mahin

Michael Mahin is a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor. He was diagnosed in October of 2017 and finished treatment in April of 2018. He recently celebrated his 3-year anniversary of being cancer-free. Michael developed his own self-publishing press in 2021, entitled Pumpkin Boy Press, and plans to publish his first book of poetry within the year, exploring his experiences in and out of cancer treatment. More information about Michael, including his upcoming poetry book, can be found at https://pumpkinboypress.weebly.com/ or via Instagram: @pumpkinboypress.

 

If you’re a CFC Scholar, and you’d like to contribute to this blog, please send your post or idea to melody@cancerforcollege.org.

To support Cancer for College Scholars, please visit https://www.classy.org/give/153059/#!/donation/checkout.

Photo credit: Michael Mahin

– first, some small things – 

from the infusion chair

some small things flash in tight bursts 

(like a silent storm of pummeling fists): 

 

|| the glimmer of water through careening car windows || 

|| the stiff autumn leaves we once swallowed as children || 

|| or my grandmother’s hands like puckered crêpe paper || 

 

and in the wake of remembering, 

left wondering how soon i’ll see 

these small and sacred things

again

– what would you take – 

if all of it was over // all-of-a-sudden 

the question // of what could you carry

(as you trace // the pallid pink of the port 

scar, scarred // just below your collarbone)

it isn’t exactly // easy to answer 

people will tell you simply // not to go there 

but it is, in some sense // a logistical question 

you put books // in boxes 

you touch keepsakes // that make you feel nothing 

you think of your sister // laughing

you hear the words // of women 

who sang you // into existence

a stevie nicks record // that glorious sound

or 

you hear // your mother’s voice 

calling you up // over the hill, again

back to this world // that you almost 

wasted

– a litany of what-ifs –

what if // the worst thing already happened? 

what if // you survived it? 

what if // the clouds kept rushing in, anyway? 

what if // you fought them? 

what if // you didn’t know the way forward? 

what if // there was so much more brokenness to come? 

what if // the joy was hard to predict? 

what if // the pain felt neon, ever-present? 

what if // you were lazy in its wake? 

what if // you were gluttonous in its wake? 

what if // you were selfish and sad? 

what if // you had to be? 

what if // you let it go on too long? 

what if // one day you decided to stop? 

what if // you were cured of the cancer, 

                    but not of the everything else that came after? 

what if // the worst thing wasn’t an excuse anymore?

what if // you forgave your life? 

what if // you forgave your body? 

what if // you forgave yourself, for not healing sooner, stronger,

                    better, faster? 

what if // you made a change, just to remind yourself that you

                    were alive? 

what if // this change was a mistake? 

what if // the mistake was necessary? 

what if // you stopped being nostalgic for every other period

                    in your life? 

what if // you chose to love this one

what if // you loved the days that you didn’t love at all? 

what if // you survived the worst thing and still felt empty and

                    aching? 

what if // the pointlessness was the point? 

what if // the hurting was random and impersonal? 

what if // you made the healing pointed and personal? 

what if // the sun always looked somewhat strange

                    afterwards?

what if // you learned to love it, anyway? 

what if // you started today

– joy – 

 

i wanted to write about joy 

something uncomplicated

something unmarred by

men that didn’t want me 

or the cut of cancer

 

really, i didn’t want to 

write a sad song, again

 

sometimes it feels like 

all i’m ever good at: 

rewinding old wounds 

 

and yet, here i am, on a

sunny sunday afternoon 

in the last remaining days 

in the month of march 

 

and there’s this certain song 

this breeze tickling my toes 

this pale, eggshell blue sky

and the clouds drifting by 

 

and this feeling in the air, 

even if it’s only for today,

shit, like i’m gonna be okay. 

 

gotta go. 

putting the pen down. 

letting the light in. 

letting my life in. 

After Cancer

November 11, 2021 | by Aspen Heidekrueger

Cancer

Wrapped up in that one little word is the power to elicit every emotion from the deepest pain to the greatest joy and everything in between. It is a word that embodies a battle that must be fought and hopefully won.

But that battle—while different for every survivor—is more complicated than most people realize.

Ever since I was diagnosed with Leukemia, my life has been inexplicably altered. When I make references to my life now, it feels as if every event is placed firmly into one of three separate categories: Before cancer, during cancer, and after cancer. All three stages together make up my life, and each is individually significant, but I want to focus on the “after” portion today. 

What words or phrases usually come to mind when people hear the term “cancer-free”? Most people are going to think along the lines of how:

  • The survivor now has a clean bill of health!
  • That person can now go forward and thrive with a new appreciation for life and wisdom gained as they fought cancer!
  • It’s time to celebrate and be happy because the hardship has passed!
  • The battle is finally over!

 That’s what cancer-free means, right? 

Not always. 

For me, when I was declared officially cancer-free the first time, it meant I still had a year-and-a-half of chemotherapy left to target any potentially dormant, undetectable leukemia cells that could be hiding in my tissues or bone marrow. 

The second time I was declared officially cancer-free after nearly 3 years of intensive chemotherapy and high-dose steroids, I felt like the farthest thing from healthy, strong, or able to go forward and live my life. 

My body had been damaged nearly beyond recognition by the treatment that saved it from cancer—a treatment that affected my body so negatively the doctors expected the chemo to kill me in the initial weeks of my treatment. Since I survived all the way to the end, I was a walking miracle. A miracle that was now left with severe damage to her kidneys, liver, heart, joints, respiratory system, nerves, thyroid, and just about every other major body system you could name. After my treatment ended, I was alive, but just barely. The health problems that chemo left me with—problems that most doctors didn’t understand— were the new threat to my life. The battle was still far from over. 

Additionally, I was so traumatized from everything that had happened that I didn’t even really want to be alive. 

Things like strength and an appreciation for life wouldn’t come until years later, after much time, energy, and strife were spent trying to heal my body and mind from what it had endured. 

The story of how a cancer survivor beat the odds, finished their chemo, survived cancer, and went on to have debilitating physical and mental problems as a side effect of their treatment is not the most popular narrative. 

For me, when my treatment ended, a whole new battle was beginning. 

I once wrote another blog post, titled “How Surviving Cancer Can be Like a Journey Through Hell (AND BACK)”. In that piece, I liken battling cancer to travelling deep into the circles of a Dante-Inferno-style hell. In this analogy, in order to survive your disease, you must enter the first circle of hell to find your first dose of your medicine. Then, you must keep going deeper and deeper into hell to find the next life-saving dose. 

Let’s imagine this:

You are seriously ill, but you don’t have a choice but to embark on this journey. If you survive the frequent attacks from demons, a landscape designed to kill you, and the occasional hellfire that rains down along your way, you might find your final life-saving dose at the very center of hell, within the final circle. 

You take the final dose, and you are cured. You are cancer-free. The catch? You are still standing in the center of hell. You are also completely exhausted, injured from the trials you faced, and uncertain if you have the energy to make another journey and face any more demons, and… you don’t actually know the way out. 

Of course, the battle against cancer can be a bit different for everyone. Maybe some people encounter bigger and stronger demons on their journey through Dante’s Inferno. Maybe hellfire rains down more frequently or some find shortcuts to take. Maybe some have a map to guide their way through the circles and others don’t. In the end, it’s all still a challenging journey through hell. 

When I took my final dose of chemo, I felt like I couldn’t make the return journey. Fighting cancer had broken my body and beaten the rest of me into dust. I had been in hell so long, nothing else seemed to matter. I wanted to give up right where I was and let it all end. That was my reality.

I created this “going into hell” analogy to emphasize something that seems to get lost in translation somewhere between being declared “cancer free” and life afterwards: The battle rarely ends after the cancer is gone. 

I’m not just referring to the ever-looming potential of a relapse and the “scanxiety” that comes during every appointment to renew your clean bill of health. I’m also referring to the long-term physical impacts of radiation, surgeries, and chemo that is so “hazardous” nurses can’t even let it come into direct contact with their skin. I’m referring to the mental and emotional impacts of long-lasting trauma and stress, and the grief that comes with the loss of health and your ability to participate fully in life for a long period of time. 

There is also something psychologically damaging and claustrophobic about living in a body that is dying, sick, or generally just not functioning well, for months or years, especially as a young adult. 

Thanks to all these factors, my “after cancer” period has involved debilitating chronic illness, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and generally struggling to ground myself after everything that happened to me during my chemo treatment. 

I could write a whole book on all the reasons cancer survivors are justified in not being “okay” the moment their treatment ends, and in that novel, I would likely emphasize things like: 

  1. When a bag of IV chemo falls on the floor and breaks open, a hazmat team is required to clean up the stuff—stuff that was supposed to be injected right into your vein. You can imagine that it has the ability to do long-term damage to your body. 
  2. The best of us start to feel like we are losing our sanity after a week of having a cold. Just a simple cold. Imagine that cold being about 50 times worse, threatening your life, and extending for months or even years. 
  3. (I’ll get off my soapbox now) 

Suffice it to say: If you survive cancer, it can take a long time to recover. Sometimes, a full recovery is impossible—sometimes there are physical and mental complications that can’t be remedied. 

It’s not easy to acknowledge that someone could go through something as awful as cancer,  fight tooth and nail to be okay, and then continue to struggle. It’s an unpleasant reality, but it’s an important one to acknowledge.  

Living through a life-threatening illness and trying to recoup in the aftermath is a feat that is not for the faint of heart. Whatever that recovery process looks like, be it struggling to get out of bed each day, finding the will to keep going, or rallying yourself and reentering society as a fully functional human being, able to acknowledge and embrace everything that happened to you, is something to be admired, acknowledged, and praised. Just surviving is often a feat within itself.

At six years cancer free, I am still trying to recover and embrace the physical limitations my cancer treatment left me with. Some days, I almost feel normal. Other days, I feel the full weight of everything my life has been. Each day, I do my best to deal with everything cancer has left me and make the most of it. I’m proud of myself for that. 

I have realized over the last six years that battling cancer may not end in one final moment of victory, where you can put down the sword and say “it’s finally over”. Maybe surviving cancer, for many people, looks like coping with the physical and mental impacts as best as they can, and hoping for the day when they can learn to thrive despite whatever lingering challenges cancer left them with. 

I like that version a lot more than the one final moment of triumph where it is onward and upward from there.

It feels like the truth.

It feels real. 

Photo of Aspen Heidekrueger

Aspen Heidekrueger is a leukemia survivor who underwent three years of chemotherapy treatment during high school. She is currently an Intern with Cancer for College, and has been a CFC scholar for the last two years. 

In tandem with pursuing her bachelors in Philosophy and working with wolves at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, Aspen is a social media influencer. She is determined to use her experiences to connect with people from different walks of life. Her goals include creating content that can help share her story, spread awareness, encourage, and support other cancer survivors and those who battle chronic illness. You can read about her experiences with cancer on her website and blog Complicated Cancer or watch her relatable videos about what it is like to be a cancer survivor on her TikTok

 

If you’re a CFC Scholar, and you’d like to contribute to this blog, please send your post or idea to melody@cancerforcollege.org.

To support Cancer for College Scholars, please visit https://www.classy.org/give/153059/#!/donation/checkout.

Photo credits: Darina Belonogova, Paul Gilmore, Malicki M Beser, Logan Armstrong, Aspen Heidekrueger, Heidi Fin 

Why We Need a Scholars’ Blog

October 13, 2021 | by Melody Bartholomew

“What do you do?” 

I dread answering this question, but not for the reasons you might think. 

“Well, I work for an organization that awards scholarships to cancer survivors,” I say, and uncomfortably shift in my seat. 

Some variation of “Oh, how lovely!” or “Wow, what great work!” is typically the reply, and I watch their pupils dilate as they subconsciously promote me to some kind of angel or heroine or savior. Maybe a virtuous young woman to set their friend’s son up with. 

...or not.

They don’t realize how much I need my job (not the other way around). In order to feel alive, I need to do something that feels important. And in this case, it feels important to give a bit of relief to families that have been through…um…hell. And while I know their suffering was in no way my fault, I also know that part of what feeds me is their extreme gratitude and positivity, emotions that are a direct result of them going through something most people (including myself) cannot even imagine. Therefore, I can’t help noticing a direct link between the suffering they endured and the ego boost I get from “helping” them. 

I know someone’s got to do the job. I just wish people understood that it’s a privilege and that I’m not saintly, I’m lucky

Another thing I want people to understand is that if anyone is the hero of the story, it’s our scholars. Sure, most people are aware that higher education and healthcare costs are rising, so financial assistance for young cancer survivors is necessary. What they don’t usually realize is that these survivors are tougher and wiser—like A LOT tougher and wiser— than their counterparts. 

2021 Founders' Scholar Andres Casas during treatment.

Something about facing your own mortality before you’ve even reached adulthood really puts things in perspective. When they finally get to join the world again, many, if not most of these young people act as if they’ve been shot out of a cannon. They want to LIVE while they can, and the vast majority go into the medical field, helping professions, or advocacy work. They go full force towards whatever goal they’ve set, knocking down any obstacle that might obstruct their path. They beat cancer—do you really think a difficult class, selfish friend, or bout of insomnia are going to take them down? Pfffft, yeah right. 

The other side of the coin is that you can’t go through something that makes you tougher and wiser and emerge unscathed. These kids bear the scars of cancer. Physically and emotionally. 

Most people don’t realize that 60-90% of childhood cancer survivors develop some sort of ongoing health issue. Sadly, in addition to any destruction caused by cancer itself, current treatment options for children with cancer are harsh and extreme, often replacing one BIG problem with several others. Childhood cancer survivors can face a variety of issues ranging from cognitive problems (like balance issues or a learning disability), vision or hearing problems, issues with the heart, lungs, bones, joints, hormones, fertility, and even secondary cancers. And that long list is not exhaustive. Ugh. 

2020 Scholar Samantha Bodger, after her amputation. Long-term health concerns aren't always this obvious.

Call me a Debbie Downer, but I haven’t even started on the toll cancer can take on one’s mental health. It’s extremely common for children, adolescents, and young adults who battle cancer to grapple with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Many of them find out who their “real friends” are while on their cancer journey, and I’ve too often heard that in their hour of need they discover with dismay that in fact, they don’t have any real friends. 

Many of them watch their parents and siblings struggle with the weight of their disease, losing jobs, life savings, and even marriages. All because of them, and all while they’re in some very important years of emotional development. 

But then, miraculously, they’re cured (if they’re lucky), labeled a “survivor” and sent on their merry way (possibly to a dorm room) to start a new life, when they didn’t get to fully experience the first one: a childhood they can never get back.

“Congratulations! Be grateful you survived!!!” we cry, ignorant of the fact that they’re already crushed under the weight of balancing survivors’ guilt with their unbelievably bad luck. It’s a perfect storm to lead a young person straight into an identity crisis. 

And that’s where Cancer for College comes in. Clearly, financial assistance alone is not enough. But what can we do for these young survivors, who’ve already experienced (while simultaneously missing out on) so much? How do we know what they need, in order to grow into healthy, fulfilled, and secure adults? 

There’s no way for us to understand. What we can do is listen…or in my case, provide a platform for scholars to speak. 

That’s the purpose of this blog: To give our young cancer survivors and cancer warriors space to air their grievances, celebrate their triumphs, and process all the suffering, chaos, and even sometimes beauty that cancer brings. 

2021 Old Family Scholar Aspen Heidekrueger at the Colorado National Monument.

I’ll let them take it from here.

Melody with Bill, her former client and cancer warrior, at the SF Pride Parade in 2015.

Melody Bartholomew joined Cancer for College as National Program Director in November of 2019. She became passionate about helping cancer survivors after losing her grandma to cancer in 2007 and working with cancer warriors at Shanti Project in San Francisco. She is also passionate about helping young people stay out of debt, after fighting her own battle with student loans. She currently lives and works in Temecula, CA. 

If you’re a CFC Scholar, and you’d like to contribute to this blog, please send your post or idea to melody@cancerforcollege.org.

To support Cancer for College Scholars, please visit https://www.classy.org/give/153059/#!/donation/checkout.

Photo credits: Christina Wocintechchat, Christophe van der Waals, Andrés Casas, Samantha Bodger, Keith Wong, Aspen Heidekrueger, Melody Bartholomew

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