Childhood Cancer Awareness Month: The fight is far from over

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- This is a special edition of Beating the Odds in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this September.

The reality is that on average, a child is newly diagnosed with cancer somewhere in the world every two minutes and while great progress has been made, especially at Helen DeVos Children's hospital there is still a lot of work ahead.

20-year-old Caitlin Sall is kind of an old soul, full of wisdom beyond her years, a passion for life that leaves you speechless; a young woman that has been through more than most can imagine.

"I have been here (at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital) six years now and there really hasn’t been a year since 2012 that I haven’t had cancer except for like one maybe," Sall said.

Caitlin was first diagnosed with cancer when she was 14-years-old.

"I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma which is what I have still now," Sall said. It's one of the rarest forms of soft tissue cancer.

"I did seven rounds of chemo, 31 rounds of radiation, and I had two surgeries and was in remission for 17 days shy of a year," she said.

"I was so close and then (was diagnosed with) Acute Milo Leukemia as result from first cancer," Sall said.

Caitlin would have to fight both cancers at the same time.

"I  was also put on hospice at that time because I wasn’t expected to do well with that I did another round of chemo and seven more rounds of radiation and then actually had a bone marrow transplant," Sall said.

But she would relapse several more times over the years which brings us to July 2018.

"It was really aggressive and my biggest tumor 9.2 centimeters."

Caitlin has since started chemo again and after one round her tumors have shrunk by more than 50 percent.

"Which is so amazing we didn’t even know if it worked," she said.

"What we most want people to know is that you hear children and cancer and you think oh my god that is sad news its difficult and maybe an uncertain outcome but the reality is there are genuine miracles that happen here everyday," said James Fahner, Chief of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology has been at Helen DeVos Children's hospital since the start.

"A couple of decades ago many of the diseases that we treat had very poor prognosis and very low cure rates and now in advances of treatment and support care and treatments we now see cure rates of 70-80-90% of some of the more common childhood cancers," Fahner said.

But the fight is far from over.

"The reality is that even with those wonderful advances and higher cure rates childhood cancer unfortunately remains the number one disease killer of children and young teens in the United States so we have had incredible advances but still have a long ways to go," he said.

And the key to that is ongoing research to find new answers.

"The federal research funding the reality is that only about 4 percent of national cancer research dollars go to childhood cancer only 4 percent and I think that we need to do so much better cause children have unlocked so many of the cancer mysteries for adults as well," Fahner said.

Warriors in so many ways, who could teach so many of us a lesson in life.

"I feel like something I have learned the most is which is really cliche and everybody says this everyday is such a blessing and to wake up next morning people take that for granted there are some nights here that I didn’t know if I would wake up the next day and there's sometimes I don’t know what the future is," Sall said. "The things that seem big usually aren’t too big you just have to be really grateful for what you have and who you have in your life."

There are a number of ways you can help Helen DeVos Children's hospital  continue to do the work they do. They’ve actually been named one of the top 50 Children's cancer programs by U.S. News and World report. 

To be apart of the fight, you can learn more about ways to give and the Spectrum Health foundation here.

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