Every day, 46 kids in the United States are diagnosed with cancer, according to the Pediatric Cancer Foundation. Once the reality of taxing treatments, grim survival rates and financial hardship set in, parents and kids invariably face another daunting risk -- that the disease might tackle the spirit along with the body.
As National Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, we would like to honor those heroes who refuse to let cancer triumph over faith, those who believe in defying the odds and serving as the glimmer of hope, paving the way to a cure.
A MOTHER'S LOVE SAVES HER SON'S LIFE
After 6-year-old Lance Kopplin had his right eye removed in November 2006, he saw a girl in the waiting room who had lost her leg to cancer.
"At least I can walk," he told his mom, Jolene.
She was sure the worst was over.
Lance had already endured 10 months of rigorous treatment, forcing the family to shuttle anywhere from three and half hours to the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison to hundreds of miles to the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia. They racked up medical bills, paid for gas and airfare and suffered a near $75,000 blow when Jolene left her job as a nurse practitioner to care for Lance.
The family relied on the Ronald McDonald House for a monetary and emotional reprieve. For just $10 a night, the family always had a comfortable place to stay near the hospital and a hot meal to come home to at the end of a grueling day.
But just a month after doctors removed Lance's right eye, they found a tumor had developed in his brain. He had a zero percent chance at survival.
"Jolene, there is nothing we can do. There is nothing we can do," she remembered the doctors telling her. "Live out the next couple weeks of his life."
But Jolene wasn't satisfied with that suggestion. Rather than accept her son's death sentence, she decided to move forward with a risky and unpredictable radiation treatment, despite the physicians' reluctance.
"There's no question when it's your child's life," Jolene told The Huffington Post. "It's like you'd rush into a burning building. It's something any parent would do. It's just a super parent power."
After Lance underwent five weeks of radiation, the neurosurgeon reported that his MRI results were clear. There was no trace of a tumor.
"It was either not a tumor to begin with, or it was the biggest miracle that ever happened," Jolene said.
Four years later, Lance is a popular 12-year-old sixth-grader who earns straight As in school. He toyed with wearing a prosthetic eye for a brief period, but found it uncomfortable. He confidently strolls through the halls bearing the remaining evidence of the cancer that threatened to take his life.
"There should always be hope," Jolene shared. "Hope is what keeps anyone going. I don't care if it's false hope. It keeps you going until the end."
A SISTER KEEPS HER BROTHERS' LEGACIES ALIVE
Riley Miller lost her two kid brothers to cancer. But she hasn't lost her determination to fight for children battling the disease.
When Riley's newborn brother, Reid, needed a blood marrow transplant, the then 8-year-old couldn't help but to feel envious when her sister was deemed a match. While Reid made some preliminary progress, Riley hoped to contribute to his cure too.
"We need to do something. We need to do something," Riley's mom, Carol, remembered her daughter saying. She was inspired by her brother's struggle and the generosity of friends and neighbors. "I want to help kids with cancer," Riley told her mom.
Reid ultimately didn't make it. He passed away in May 2002 from transplant complications when he was just 4 months old.
Soon after Reid died, Riley learned about Alexandra Scott while watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The 4-year-old was fighting cancer and selling lemonade to raise money for research. Riley wanted to join Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation's mission.
"Riley was inspired by Alex," Carol Miller told The Huffington Post. "She was so thin and so sick, but not complaining."
Riley joined the campaign in the summer of 2005, months after Alex had passed away. Riley hosted a community-wide event where kids from Bowling Green, Ky., set up 15 stations, doled out free lemonade and accepted donations.
They collected $15,000.
That November, the family got more good news. Carol was surprised to find out that she was pregnant again. She was even more exuberant when she found out it was a boy.
"God just wanted us to have this son," Carol recalled thinking at the time.
But things took a devastating turn when Carol woke up one morning and didn't feel the baby moving. She had an emergency cesarean and the baby was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Riley was a blood marrow match, but baby Randon didn't make it to that stage. He passed away on Sept. 23, 2006.
Though Riley had to bury another brother, she remained steadfast in her goal to help kids with cancer. She has continued hosting -- and expanding -- her yearly fundraising event.
"Pretty much anywhere you go on that day, you'll find a lemonade stand," Carol said.
This summer, Riley's community hosted 28 individual stands and set up a "grandstand" where participants reveled in face painting, dunking booths and a silent auction. Since launching her fundraising efforts, Riley and her family have pulled in more than $140,000 for the foundation.
"You're still in shock -- mourning, grieving as a mom," Carol said. "They're never forgotten, and what we went through is never forgotten. We're helping and we're making a difference, just like Alex did."
A SURVIVOR HELPS SUFFERERS MAKE ENDS MEET
As Christie Parsons' best friend wheeled her through the Broward General Medical Center oncology floor, the then 13-year-old peeked into a few rooms and felt her heart sink. So many suffering children lay between barren walls -- no visitors, no gifts, no goodies to lift their spirits.
"They had no one," Christie told The Huffington Post of the kids whose families struggled financially. "My room was filled with flowers and balloons, family and friends. These kids had no one. It broke my heart."
Though doctors eventually ruled out leukemia as the cause of Christie's constant nosebleeds, the teen vowed to help cancer patients once she overcame thrombocytopenic purpura, a blood-clotting disorder. After Christie endured intensive steroid treatment, she finally regained her strength about a year and a half ago.
That's when Christie, now 17, decided to commit her time to lifting the spirits of young patients, like the despairing ones she had seen on the cancer floor.
Christie teamed up with the Jessica June Foundation, a Florida nonprofit founded in memory of Jessica June, who died of acute myelogenous leukemia when she was just 7 years old. The organization provides emergency financial assistance and basic necessities to kids fighting cancer.
"Jessica's story was almost my exact story, only our outcome was different," Christie said. "It really connected me. I was like, 'Yes, this is the foundation I want to get involved with.'"
Soon after Christie posted a sign-up sheet and told her teachers about her mission, her fundraising efforts took off. A friend built a website for her and within six months, Christie raised $3,000 -- enough to sponsor a needy family, with extra money left over to donate to the nonprofit.
In July, Christie handed a $2,000 check to Valentina Londono, a 15-year-old suffering from a rare stage-4 muscle cancer.
Valentina's disease has hit her and her family particularly hard. The straight-A student has endured seven months of intensive chemotherapy. She's lost 28 pounds and constantly feels nauseated and weak. Valentina's family has faced financial woes, too. Valentina's mom was determined to stay by her daughter's side throughout the rigorous treatments and had to quit her four jobs to do so.
But, with Jessica June's support -- and Christie's personal contribution -- the Londonos have been able to pay their rent and phone bills and keep their spirits up.
"It helps to know that someone's been trough it," Valentina told The Huffington Post. "Someone might tell you to be strong, but they don't know what you're going through."
Soon after meeting Christie, Valentina got a heartening medical report. Her blood marrow, previously 100 percent saturated with cancer cells, is now clean. Her tumor is completely gone. She has five months of treatment left to go.
"You have to know that this happened to you for a reason," Valentina said. "Maybe you're supposed to learn something from it. I've definitely learned to live life to the fullest. Focus on today. You don't know when you're going to leave the earth."