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By Clarissa Schilstra
I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for the first time when I was 2 years old. I was treated at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children and then at CHOP - the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, because my family lived in PA at the time. I went through 2 ½ years of intense chemotherapy and survived. For 8 years, I lived a happy and healthy life, with yearly blood tests to monitor me. I never once thought my leukemia could or would come back. However, on June 27, 2007 I was diagnosed with a relapse of the same leukemia I had had as a child and I underwent an even more intense 2 ½ years of treatment, including radiation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore because my family had moved to Maryland a couple years before. I finished my relapse treatment in 2009. I am now happy to report that I am a two-time cancer survivor and recently celebrated the 3 year anniversary of the end of my relapse treatment!
Please tell us about your college enrollment status?
I am a freshman at Duke University and majoring in biology. After graduating in 2016, I plan to attend medical school and work towards my lifelong goal of becoming a doctor!
Please discuss how your experiences as a survivor have influenced and directed your academic path?
As a two-time leukemia survivor, I have spent a total of 6 years in and out of the hospital. Since I was first diagnosed at 2 years old, my doctors amazed me. Their positive attitudes, intelligence, and unfaltering effort to save the lives of their patients became such an inspiration to me. Once I finished my relapse treatment, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. Through a program at my high school, I interned with my oncologist during my junior year and gained a deep understanding of medicine from the physician’s point of view. Those experiences motivated me to attend Duke University, one of the top schools in the country, so that I can prepare myself in the best way possible to one day become the best doctor I can be and save lives as my doctors saved mine.
Please reflect on your personal strengths as a survivor and how you envision these strengths can be directly applied to achieving your educational goals?
Having survived cancer twice, I have gained many strengths that are applicable to achieving my education goals. Above all, the positive attitude I developed to remain hopeful during my treatment has stayed with me and helps me to believe in my own ability to reach my goals. Also, going through treatment made me very comfortable around adults, since I spent so many of my days surrounded my doctors and nurses. I believe that the maturity and conversation skills I developed from being in that environment will be very useful to me during the rest of my undergraduate career and into medical school.
As you look to the future, what are your educational and professional goals and aspirations?
By pursuing a college education, I hope to prepare myself for medical school and a career as a doctor. While I am not yet sure of what specialty I want to work in, I do know I want to work in pediatrics.
How have the financial implications of being a survivor impacted your decisions about college?
While my family thankfully had good insurance during my treatment, and we did not face terribly high medical bills, my dad has recently started his own company. When he began his own company, our family had to purchase our own insurance. Because of the cost of my survivorship checkups at Johns Hopkins, my parents had to pay for the most expensive insurance that offered the most coverage. I am incredibly grateful to my parents for not letting our financial situation influence my college choices. With the knowledge I would be going to Duke, my mom went back to work during the fall of my senior year of high school. Although she works full time now, my dad is still running his company and Duke tuition is still a challenge.
How will you use the funds raised towards your education expenses?
The money I raise will go towards tuition, specifically to cover as much of my and my family’s needed contribution to my tuition.
How will you use any funds raised in excess of your fundraising goal?
Any funds I raise in excess of my fundraising goal will go towards tuition for following years or, eventually, for medical school.
Cancer has a way of touching the depths of our souls in ways that one could never imagine. By the very nature of the experience, it can be both devastating and inspiring. Please share with us what you have learned through your journey or your thoughts of inspiration and motivation.
As a two-time leukemia survivor, I have had a very different life experience than my peers. I was diagnosed the first time at two years old, successfully completed my treatment, and then relapsed ten years later at thirteen years old. The incredible doctors and nurses that cared for me inspired me to become a doctor, so that I could save lives as they have saved mine. To find out if a career in medicine would be right for me, I interned during the 2011 school year with my oncologist, Dr. Patrick Brown, the Director of the Pediatric Leukemia Program at Johns Hopkins. Working with him, I had the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a doctor. I loved every aspect of the internship, and it is now my goal to become a doctor. Surviving cancer twice has also driven me to help children and teenagers who have or have had cancer. Going through cancer treatment as a teenager was very difficult. There are little to no resources available, specifically for teenagers, to help them with the unique challenges they face during and after treatment. Therefore, I started a blog (www.teen-cancer.com), to help guide teenagers with cancer through the emotional, social, and academic challenges of treatment. Using my own experience and research, I try to provide advice and support, acting as an electronic friend, to teens with cancer. In tenth grade, I completed an independent research project as part of the Independent Research class at my high school, researching the psychology of teen oncology. I use that research to supplement my blog. It is my goal to continue adding to this blog throughout my college experience. In addition to starting a blog for teens with cancer, I co-founded a support group for teen cancer patients and survivors with my friend, who is also a teen cancer survivor. Our support group, known as teens.CanSur.vive, was made possible with the help of Cool Kids Campaign, a local organization that helps cancer patients and survivors. Our group has about 41 members, from many different parts of Maryland, and we meet throughout the year. Our meeting activities include attending concerts, having movie nights at the Cool Kids Campaign Learning Center, and planning future activities and events. Having had cancer as a teenager, I highly value helping others in the same situation, and enjoy seeing the benefits such support can provide. In addition to these activities meant to support teen cancer patients and survivors, I also volunteer at an annual, week-long, overnight camp called Camp Sunrise. This camp, sponsored by Johns Hopkins Hospital, is for children who have or have had cancer. Last year, I transitioned from a camper to a Counselor In Training (CIT). This summer, once again, I will be a CIT. I hope to become a Counselor next year, after I turn nineteen. The positions of CIT and Counselor are both volunteer positions. CITs assist Counselors in guiding campers throughout the daily activities and taking campers to the camp medical station to receive their daily medications or treatments. CITs also plan a special night, known as CIT night, filled with unique, fun activities for the campers and staff alike. It is here that I learned the value of friendship and accepting people for who they are. Finally, I have helped children and teenagers who have or have had cancer by being a Johns Hopkins Pediatric Oncology Patient Ambassador. I became a Johns Hopkins Pediatric Oncology Patient Ambassador in order to help raise money for a cure, raise awareness for pediatric cancer, and give back to the hospital that saved my life. My pubic speaking began as a speech of gratitude, at my end-of-treatment party, to those who helped me through my leukemia relapse treatment. The standing ovation I received after speaking gave me a surge of confidence. Shortly thereafter, the business development manager of the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Oncology Department asked me to become a patient ambassador, and I seized the opportunity. As a patient ambassador, I have shared my cancer experience at 16 fundraising events, benefitting Johns Hopkins and other organizations, such as the Children’s Cancer Foundation. Through my speeches, I have helped to raise over $1.5 million for pediatric cancer research. I have been an integral part of many donor recognition events as well, thanking donors for another $1.7 million. My speeches have led me to a myriad of new opportunities. I look forward to continuing my efforts, in the future, to help find a cure for cancer. I believe, after everything that my community has done for me, that it is important for me to be an active member of my community and have a positive impact. Cancer has given me confidence, provided me with unbelievable opportunities, and showed me how important it is to help others going through a similar experience. I hope to use everything that cancer has taught me to do my best at Duke and, in the future, become the best doctor I can be.
Do you certify that you meet the eligibility criteria to publish a campaign on College Beyond Cancer and that you are committed to utilizing all funds raised for educational expenses?
Yes, I certify that meet the eligibility criteria. I am at least 18 years of age and was diagnosed with a life threatening cancer or tumor on or before age 21. I am currently enrolled in college or graduate school and am committed to utilizing all the funds raised for educational expenses.
Please take this opportunity to extend your appreciation to all those lending support to your campaign.