As Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM) closes this year, we want to point out that every month is CCAM here at CureRock. Stories like Merel’s keep us going and we’re sure you’ll feel inspired by this courageous and beautiful soul, just like we do!

“This year is my 20-year cancerversary (17 years cancer-free)!!! I was diagnosed with an optic glioma—a brain tumor—in May 1999. In July 1999, I attended my first year of Camp Courage, a weeklong sleep away camp held yearly at The Woodlands in Wexford. It was at Camp that I met friends who would shape and change my life forever. That first year at Camp, I was a scared and shy child, and a new diagnosis. My first friend was also 7-years old, dancing her own choreography to Britney Spears. We would become best Camp friends and attended Camp every summer together for the next 9 years. We faced challenges together—everything from our fear of spiders in the tents at the campout nights, to whose cabin we were going to prank, to my relapse first, then her relapse and bone marrow transplant a year after. We had camp crushes and real life crushes. We grew up at camp together, seeing each other only occasionally in between summers because of the distance, but knowing our friendship was always going to be there. And though we don’t see each other often now, 20 years after we originally met that first summer at camp, 10 years after we attended camp for the last time, almost 7 years since we aged out of the UPMC Children’s Hospital AYA Oncology Ski Trip at Seven Springs (which became our yearly “cancer themed” get-together after our time at camp ended)—no matter where we go or where life will take us, she is one of my most valued friends because we grew up through it all together. I’ve known Kelly through 3 of her 4 face-offs with cancer, and her strength and perseverance is inspiring, just as her confidence and courage inspired me all those years ago at Camp. I can truly say that her friendship, and the friendship of others that I made at Camp shaped the person that I’ve become through my survivorship. Looking back at the few photos I can still find of those years at camp (nothing was digital, and I still remember picking out my 2 disposable cameras to take each year)—I can visibly see the lack of confidence and the unsureness in the girl who went to Camp that first year disappear. And what replaced that gradually was self-confidence, self-assuredness, and some straight up goofiness! At Camp, the kids around me were also losing their hair one year, were also dealing with the side effects of chemo and steroids one year, were combating moon-face and other unfortunate fallout from the drugs used to save our lives while going through puberty another year, and were dealing with the loss of mutual friends other years. We became a family that was just as comfortable talking about our cancer diagnoses, histories, and worries for the future as we were talking about our favorite movies and bands. I can honestly say that being at camp and having those friends and memories is probably the one of, if not the most contributing factor in me becoming a (I think?!) well-adjusted survivor. I am very open about my cancer history and diagnosis and have been able to channel what I went through into positive things in my life over the years, running in the Pittsburgh Marathon for Team Children’s Hospital, helping plan and volunteering at CureRock, connecting with families in the community with children undergoing cancer treatment, becoming a pediatric nurse. I even volunteer as a nurse at 2 summer camps every year—one for children with diabetes, and another for children who have undergone abdominal transplants. I believe so much in these children and in the camp experience and what I know it could do for them because I know what it’s done for me. I am so lucky to have the memories of Camp, and though cancer took so much from me, I wouldn’t trade the memories made and the people brought into my life, Kelly and countless others, for the world. I know what value there is in having a safe place to be yourself unashamedly/unapologetically, and that every child has a right to make camp memories, regardless of their medical situation. So this CCAM, I would like to give a shout out and thanks to all of the friends brought into my life through my moment with cancer, whether you’re dealing with your own illness, or you supported me in mine/the survivorship journey since—I just want you all to know you are the very best ‘cancer perks!’” ~ Merel

Since CureRock’s inception in 2012 we have provided funding to provide free and safe transportation for childhood and AYA cancer patients to get to and from camp, because we believe this is an experience that can and will be life changing for them. We believe these kids deserve to have, as Merel puts it, “a safe place to be yourself unashamedly/unapologetically”. We hope to continue this support, year after year, as we grow and expand our contributions to the fight against childhood cancer. We continue to focus on both research, as well as quality of life programs that help make this journey a bit more gentle for the kids and their families, until there is a cure. If you’d like to help us in our mission, share this story and if you are able, donate today!