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Mentor program bridging gap between cancer patients' diagnosis and their dreams

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Posted at 11:10 PM, Sep 08, 2023

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — September marks Pediatric Cancer Month— raising awareness of childhood cancer and supporting families who have been impacted by it.

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death among children and adolescents, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Mentor program bridging gap between cancer patients' diagnosis and dreams

“I ran a track meet on a Saturday and that Monday, I stayed home sick from school,” Jacob Radlinski recalled. “As that week went on, from…Monday to Wednesday, I wasn’t able to even stand up because I got so lightheaded, short of breath.”

Jacob was admitted to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, where specialists discovered a tumor in his chest.

“I really felt fine and then all of a sudden, just hit a brick wall,” he said.

From there, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

The athlete— used to running track, playing basketball and football— had to take a step back.

“It was tough to sit out but it was good to still be there and be part of the team and know that everyone cared,” he said.

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Jacob underwent six cycles of chemotherapy.

“I lost my hair. I initially, I lost weight but then I put a lot of weight back on so fluctuating body weight. I was really tired all the time,” he explained.

But during that difficult journey, his passion for wakeboarding helped him push through— with the help of a young adult cancer mentor program called Connecting Champions.

“When I was a kid, I remember all the times that I was asked that question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and it wasn't ‘What do you want to be if you grow up?’, said Sidney Kushner, Executive Director and Founder of Connecting Champions.

It’s a question that holds a lot of weight for any kid, especially when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

Kushner founded the program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2011 after a high school friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

“I remember at that time when she was in and out of the hospital, and we didn't see her in choir practice, or in school, one of the questions that kept ringing through my mind was, what can i do to be a helpful friend right now?” said Kushner.

Since then he’s paired kids diagnosed with cancer with mentors in more than 100 different professions, showing them the importance of being able to dream beyond their diagnosis.

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“They brought a boat out and i got to wake surf with Stacia, a pro, and she showed me some tricks, and I got to just spend the day with her…that was a dream come true,” said Radlinski.

He won his battle with cancer and now attends Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana. He’s undecided on a career right now, but is leaning towards business and boats.

“I just really love boats, so if someday I could have a job that's around boats, it'd mean a lot to me,” said Radlinski.

Doctors at Helen DeVos tell FOX 17 that some symptoms of childhood cancer include fatigue, shortness of breath and unusual bruising or bleeding. They encourage parents to constantly check in and talk to their kids about how they are feeling. Also, have a good relationship with your pediatrician and don’t hesitate to ask questions.

If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for Connecting Champions you can find more information here.

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