What should you say to someone whose loved one has died? Vicki Bunke has some simple advice that comes from heartbreaking experience — her 14-year-old daughter, Honored Kid Grace, died of bone cancer in March. Here’s what Vicki has to say …
Vicki’s daughter Grace grins and laughs in her mom’s arms. Grace was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when she was 11 years old and lost part of her leg to the disease. After her third relapse, she knew her disease was terminal but remained determined to experience everything life had to offer. Photo by Ashton Songer Photography
For 20 years, I have had the privilege of working as a school psychologist. I am honored to get up every morning and go to a job where I get to spend hour after hour interacting with young people. Sadly, this past spring, a young student who attended the high school where I work — and whom I loved dearly — died of osteosarcoma, a childhood bone cancer.
This student happened to be my 14-year-old daughter, Grace.
From the moment he was born, Ambassador Kellan has been fighting childhood cancer and its devastating effects. But he doesn’t fight alone. His dad, Dan, is right there with him — and Dan wouldn’t have it any other way. In honor of Father’s Day, Dan wrote this letter to Kellan to share how blessed he feels to be his dad.
Ambassador Kellan and his dad, Dan.
As I sit here writing this letter, you are in the operating room at Boston Children’s Hospital. This is a familiar place to you, your Mom and me. As we walked down the halls yesterday to check in, waves of emotion came over me as I reflected on the past six years. We have spent many days and weeks here since your birth.
They’ve told us that your operation will be approximately nine hours, but I know it’ll feel like a lifetime before I see you again. So, here I wait and try to put into words what it means to be your Dad. I don’t know that it’s possible to say exactly what it means to me. Although your smile and thumbs up prior to today’s surgery tells part of it.
Since day one of your life, you have been an inspiration. We watched your battle with cancer begin on the day of your birth. Chemotherapy started on day three. Your tumor resection surgery was month three. Hundreds of visits to the doctor, scans and appointments followed. At 17 months, you got your wheelchair and started to run, Kellan style. At year five we celebrated no evidence of disease — cancer free! Although you are free from cancer, you are paralyzed. Cancer left its mark, but it doesn’t define you or your remarkable life. This year, you were named an Ambassador for St Baldrick’s, an honor I know you don’t take lightly. Your willingness and ability to advocate for all children and families impacted by childhood cancer humbles me. You speak about it from the heart and I am filled with pride when you and your Mother work so hard for others.
Honored Kid Sully loves to bike, run and wrestle with his brothers like any 11-year-old boy. He even tried out skiing over spring break. You’d never expect that just a year and a half ago, Sully woke up from surgery unable to walk.
Honored Kid Sully loves to bike, run, ride roller coasters and play with his brothers, Cashel and Finn. He wants to be a civil engineer when he grows up and dreams of designing the world’s best roller coasters.
It all started with back pain. It was innocuous at first. Hot baths would relieve Sully’s pain for a while, but it would come back with a vengeance. Finally, after many doctor’s visits, a lot of ibuprofen and no improvement, Sully’s parents, Dan and Jen, brought their son to the ER.
Hours later, the boy was in emergency brain surgery.
At St. Baldrick’s, funding childhood cancer research is our mission. But for six of our staff, the goal is deeply personal — because their children were diagnosed with cancer. Read on for thoughts from these moms on what Mother’s Day means to them, what they’ve learned about motherhood through the good times and bad, and how childhood cancer has changed their lives forever.
St. Baldrick’s staff members and cancer moms from left to right: Robyn with her son Keaton, Nancy with her son, Scott, and Vanessa with her daughter, Aubrey.
Danielle holds her son Mason, who was diagnosed with medulloblastoma in 2006. A force to be reckoned with, the little boy faced his cancer with stalwart determination and his signature stubbornness. Mason died in 2007.
Mother’s Day is always bittersweet for me. I will always be a mom to three boys. I just do not have one here with me because cancer took Mason’s life from us. Mother’s Day reminds me of Mason’s laughter, competitive nature, his love for his brother and the family we had. I am Mason’s mom. Cancer made me do things to my son I never imagined I would have to do to my child to get him to survive. Cancer taught me how to be a fierce advocate for my child. Cancer made me live my worst moments as a mom and some of the best. Cancer taught me I had to take care of and protect all my kids, not just the one who was sick. Cancer broke my heart. But being a mom to Mason, Mateo, and Marcus puts my heart back together every day.
Brooks was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumors when he was 5 years old. In May 2016, he passed away at home, surrounded by his family. “He did not like me to be sad,” said his mom, Tracey. “He had a caring and loving heart. He wanted everyone to be happy.”
After Ambassador Brooks got sick, he started painting – a hobby the 5-year-old had never considered before. His art was abstract and vibrant, bursting with life and joy. When he painted, it was as if he dipped his brush into his soul. A little bit of Brooks and his love was in every painting.
It was this art that St. Baldrick’s donor Mary Clency glimpsed when she was getting out of her car at the local craft store – a woman was carrying two bags emblazoned with these colorful paintings. Immediately, Mary knew exactly who it was. The woman was Brooks’ mom, Tracey Blackmore, someone Mary had held in her heart for years, but had never met.
Brooks had brought them together.
Joey Chamness has grown up from being St. Baldrick’s very first Ambassador to become a longtime shavee and the VEO of his college event — helping fundraise for childhood cancer research to the tune of thousands of dollars. Why does he do it? Because this survivor knows firsthand how important it is to find better, safer treatments and cures for kids with cancer.
(Left) Joey rests and watches movies during his treatment for osteosarcoma. (Right) Now a survivor, Joey speaks during a St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event.
21-year-old Joey Chamness considers himself lucky.
Ambassador Julia is a volunteering powerhouse. Bake sales, bingo, fun runs, speeches — she does it all. Why? In honor of Volunteer Week, read on for a heartwarming Q&A that will give you all the answers and leave you wanting to give back too. Join Julia and get involved!
Ambassador Julia goes gold for childhood cancer awareness.
1. What’s your favorite volunteering position and why?
My role as St. Baldrick’s ambassador has become a favorite, but I love any of the volunteering I do that helps sick kids. That’s most of the volunteering I do lately. Helping sick kids is my favorite, because I’m helping them like people helped me when I was on treatment and having so many surgeries. Also, when I grow up I want to have a foundation that helps create programs that make sick kids who are in the hospital happy. In fact, I want to perform for kids in the hospital when I grow up.
2. What is it like being a St. Baldrick’s Ambassador? What’s your favorite part?
It’s really exciting being a St. Baldrick’s ambassador! I get to make fun videos talking to people about childhood cancer and what St. Baldrick’s does, and I REALLY love going to shave events! There’s always a lot of action, everyone is really nice and I get to make speeches. The shave events are definitely my favorite part, along with knowing that I’m helping raise money for childhood cancer research.
Ambassador Julia smiles with a shavee at the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department head-shaving event in Virginia.
3. Where else do you volunteer and how often do you volunteer?
I volunteer at least once or twice a month for several organizations in my community. Once a month, I visit a local assisted living facility with my music teacher and other students from the studio. We spend an hour performing for the residents. I play the piano and sing, and I really enjoy making the older people happy.
In honor of National Siblings Day, we bring you an amazing story of a brother’s love and dedication to honor his sister and raise money for childhood cancer research in her memory. Meet Geordan, a long-time shavee and the proud big brother of Honored Kid Rayanna.
Rayanna and Geordan share a sweet moment.
When Geordan shaves with St. Baldrick’s, his sister is there. When he drives his race car, she’s with him. When he walks the halls of his high school, rocking his bald head, Rayanna is never far away. The little girl is always with Geordan in his thoughts, hanging around her brother just like she did before childhood cancer took her away.
“Rayanna was my only full sibling and now it’s just me,” the 16-year-old said. “I miss Rayanna and wish there had never been childhood cancer.”
The STAR Act — the most comprehensive childhood cancer bill ever introduced on Capitol Hill — was just passed by the Senate and now heads to the House, backed by the support of Members of Congress, families, survivors and advocates like YOU. Why is this bill so important? Rachael Kittleson, the mom to a teen who had a pediatric brain tumor, will tell you …
Rachael (middle) smiles with Kelsey (right) and her little sister, Avery.
There is nothing in life that prepares you for the words, “Your daughter has a large tumor on the left side of her brain.” There is nothing in life that prepares you for telling your husband devastating news about his girl. And there is certainly nothing in life that prepares you for how to keep your teenage daughter calm as you say, “You have to go to the hospital, but you are going to be fine.”
I think back on watching my daughter Kelsey perform on stage or playing on the soccer and lacrosse fields. I think of the cancer breaking into her brain silently and lying in wait, like a burglar.
Kelsey was an energetic teenager and an accomplished athlete, playing both soccer and lacrosse.
For me, three years ago was such a time of pride and excitement as I watched our oldest daughter start to come into her own. She was an honors student, athlete, lead in the school musical, tutor and musician. While she was a normal teenage girl excited about things like her dress and date for her 8th grade dance, there was something else going on with Kelsey. The cancer was barely perceptible and easily dismissed, but it would eventually, most cruelly, take everything from her a piece at a time.
As Kelsey’s spring schedule was in full swing, the tumor started to make itself known in innocuous ways – ways I easily brushed aside as a mother. I had no idea this was the beginning and the beast would be in full control in just a couple of months. As Kelsey’s symptoms progressed, an MRI was ordered for August 27, 2015. That day would change our lives forever.
Leanne gives Ava a kiss on her peach-fuzz head, while her baby sister, Addalyn, giggles.
It turns out that being bald is an instant conversation starter. Leanne, who just recently shaved with St. Baldrick’s, loves it.
“It’s very empowering,” she said. “Honestly, it hasn’t even been a week yet and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about my hair. It just opens the door for conversation and I love that, because I love talking about my daughter.”
Her daughter’s name was Ava – Ava the brave, bald and beautiful.
Ava showed an independent streak as soon as she could sit up by herself. “I’ve never seen anything like it. She just really was her own person,” her mom said.
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