GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Brain cancer is now the deadliest childhood cancer in the world, ahead of leukemia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Thomas Sikkema, 20, survived brain cancer and now serves as a pediatric hematology oncology nurse tech on the ninth floor of Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in downtown Grand Rapids, where he once was a patient.
Experts say brain cancer the fourth leading cause of death for children overall, mainly due to a concentration on improving leukemia treatment that has led to a lack of progress on studying brain cancer. Close to 16,000 children younger than 21 are diagnosed with brain cancer every year. A quarter of them don't survive.
Three years ago, when Sikkema was 17, found himself at the oncology hematology entrance at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital after doctors diagnosed him with a germ cell tumor. He describes his battle against cancer as "mentally tasking" and something he would never wish upon his worst enemy.
"Your life comes to a freezing halt. Nothing else matters. It’s an eye opening experience," Sikkema said. "And the only thing you’re worried about at that time is whether I’m going to walk out or not."
Dr. David Dickens says that while Sikkema's cancer was curable, he needed treatment fast: brain surgery along with chemo and radiation therapy.
Today, Sikkema living to help others, and his experience helps to guide others through some of the hardest days of their lives. Three years after his diagnosis, he is a nursing student at Grand Valley State University and working assisting nurses on the same floor he once hated.
"The fact that Thomas is working with us now doesn’t surprise me," Dr. Dickens said. "He had this magnetic personality and internal drive to want to give back."
Sikkema says he hopes one day to work at the pediatric cancer center full-time."I love these kids. I understand what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis," Sikkema said. "Everything does happen for a reason, and luckily I made it out, and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now."
The best news of all of this is that Sikkema is now cancer-free. However, he still undergoes MRIs to make sure that cancer never comes back.