Kids share what gives them strength as they battle cancer, blood disorders

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September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and National Sickle Cell Awareness Month.Dance has been therapeutic for Lexy, 12, who is being treated for osteosarcoma.Sawyer began treatment for sickle cell at just 2 months old. Lucky for him, twin brother Sexton was a perfect bone marrow match.Acute lymphoblastic leukemia kept Faith in the hospital on her prom night. Her nurses made her feel special and gave her support.Aries' job is to calm cancer patients, but during his stay for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Will ended up encouraging the newly trained dog.In addition to her love for music, Mary has a handwritten note from "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Mranda that gives her strength.Izabella draws strength from her mother during chemo treatments and a bone marrow transplant for leukemia.While undergoing chemotherapy treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Andrew found comfort in learning how to play the guitar

September is national awareness month for both childhood cancer and sickle cell disease

This year, nearly 16,000 children in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer. Many more will struggle with the debilitating effects of sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder. Last year, the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta diagnosed more than 500 new cancer patients and treated nearly 2,000 children with sickle cell disease.

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“During National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, we pay tribute to the health care professionals, researchers, private philanthropies, social support organizations, and patient advocacy groups who work together with families across the country to provide hope and help to children diagnosed with cancer and to develop better treatments,” President Joe Biden stated in a proclamation.

But what gives these young patients the hope and strength to get through their treatments? For kids undergoing treatment for cancer and blood disorders, the people and passions that matter most are the ones that lift their spirits, instill confidence and help them get through another day.

For patients at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s, strength comes from a variety of sources. Here are some of their stories.

Faith Johnson, 18: her nurses

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Faith Johnson had already bought her dress and shoes for prom, but found herself back in the hospital on the night of the dance. Her nurses at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta threw her a surprise prom to make up for it.

Credit: Faith Johnson Instagram

Faith Johnson had already bought her dress and shoes for prom, but found herself back in the hospital on the night of the dance. Her nurses at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta threw her a surprise prom to make up for it.
Caption
Faith Johnson had already bought her dress and shoes for prom, but found herself back in the hospital on the night of the dance. Her nurses at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta threw her a surprise prom to make up for it.

Credit: Faith Johnson Instagram

Credit: Faith Johnson Instagram

Faith Johnson was student council president and homecoming queen at Lambert High School. In November 2020, however, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and began chemotherapy treatment at Aflac. Throughout treatment and inpatient stays, she tried to make the best of her experience by staying on top of schoolwork and enjoying free time in between treatments. As prom night approached and Johnson found herself unable to leave the hospital, her nurses became her source of strength. They encouraged her to dress up and celebrate anyway. The nurses turned on music and turned the unit into a dance party. This fall, Johnson will head to the University of California, Santa Barbara for her freshman year of college.

“At first I was so disappointed to be missing my senior prom,” she said. “But after I saw the efforts my nurses had put in to making the night special for me, like decorating my door and making my prom queen sash out of a pillow case, I realized that this night would mean a whole lot more to me in the long run than my actual prom would have. I’ll never forget how my nurses made that night special for me.”

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Lexy McRae, 12: dance

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Lexy McRae, 12, with dad Michael, mom Katy and brother Peyton. Lexy has osteosarcoma. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Lexy McRae, 12, with dad Michael, mom Katy and brother Peyton. Lexy has osteosarcoma. 
Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
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Lexy McRae, 12, with dad Michael, mom Katy and brother Peyton. Lexy has osteosarcoma. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

After Lexy McRae fell during gym class, she began experiencing pain in her arm. Thinking she might have torn her rotator cuff, Lexy’s mom took her to the pediatrician. They were referred to the Aflac Center where additional testing revealed she had osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Though Lexy’s medical journey is ongoing, her mom, Katy McRae, said she is getting back to what makes her feel strong — performing. After her first post-diagnosis dance competition, Katy McRae said, Lexy cried, saying, “Today has been a perfect day.”

“Dance has helped me so much during treatment,” Lexy said. “Dance has been the light at the end of the tunnel. It was the thing that I knew I wanted to get back to. Performing makes me feel happier and stronger each day.”

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Sawyer Guillory, 5: his twin brother, Saxton

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Sawyer Guillory, 5 (left), has sickle cell, but his twin brother, Saxton, was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Sawyer Guillory, 5 (left), has sickle cell, but his twin brother, Saxton, was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant.
Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
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Sawyer Guillory, 5 (left), has sickle cell, but his twin brother, Saxton, was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Diagnosed with sickle cell disease as an infant, Sawyer Guillory began receiving treatment at the Aflac Center when he was just 2 months old. When Sawyer needed a bone marrow transplant, his fraternal twin, Saxton, turned out to be a perfect match. During the winter of 2019, Saxton donated lifesaving cells to Sawyer. The twins’ mom, Shea Guillory, said this experience has brought Sawyer and Saxton even closer and made their bond stronger.

“When the twins were born, little did I know that Saxton would end up being Sawyer’s saving grace because he was healthy, and the disease was not passed on to him,” Shea Guillory said. “I remember dropping to my knees and crying out when I received the news that Saxton was a perfect match for Sawyer.”

Will Broxterman, 20: Aries the facility dog

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Will Broxterman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. During his treatments, Aries the therapy dog kept him company. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Will Broxterman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. During his treatments, Aries the therapy dog kept him company.
Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
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Will Broxterman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. During his treatments, Aries the therapy dog kept him company. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

In the fall of his senior year of high school, Will Broxterman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. During treatment, doctors also discovered plasmablastic lymphoma in his rib. His care plan included intensive chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and an infusion of CAR-T cells, the fighting T-cells. During his time at Aflac, Broxterman was the first patient that facility dog Aries met. These dogs are there to provide motivation to patients, but Broxterman was quick to give words of encouragement to center’s newest team member. Spending time with the teen allowed Aries to learn about his new job, and gave the golden retriever the confidence and strength needed to care for all the patients he encounters. This month, Broxterman begins his freshman year of college at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville.

“In my long stays in the hospital, I found myself heartbroken because I couldn’t see my dog for months on end,” Broxterman said. “Aries always helped to cheer me up, and seeing him was the favorite part of my day.”

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Mary Frances Webb, 15: band

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Mary Webb was diagnosed with brain cancer her freshman year of high school. Her music teacher told Lin-Manuel Miranda how disappointed Mary was that she'd have to miss "Hamilton," and he responded with a personal note. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Mary Webb was diagnosed with brain cancer her freshman year of high school. Her music teacher told Lin-Manuel Miranda how disappointed Mary was that she'd have to miss "Hamilton," and he responded with a personal note.
Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
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Mary Webb was diagnosed with brain cancer her freshman year of high school. Her music teacher told Lin-Manuel Miranda how disappointed Mary was that she'd have to miss "Hamilton," and he responded with a personal note. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

One month into her freshman year of high school, Mary Frances Webb was diagnosed with brain cancer. After starting chemotherapy treatments, she had to press pause on her passion for music and playing on the drumline at North Oconee High School. When Mary’s chorus teacher reached out to Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda and explained Mary wasn’t able to see his musical “Hamilton” because of her treatments and COVID-19, Miranda surprised her with a handwritten note—a gesture the 15-year-old said she will never forget and that gave her strength. Now that her treatment is complete, Mary said can’t wait to see “Hamilton” at the Fox Theatre this month — one year to the day after she was diagnosed.

“Music has always been an important part of my life, and I’ve realized how important it is to me during my cancer treatments,” Mary said. “During treatment, my marching band family was always there for me, and my principal even face-timed me into the halftime show so I felt like I was out there with my band friends. I also listened to Queen music during my radiation treatment. I would count how long the songs were up in my head so I knew how much longer I’d have for that day. Music is my kind of medicine.”

Izabella Alcantara Cortes, 5: her mom

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Izabella Alcantara Cortes' journey at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders began in June 2020, when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Izabella Alcantara Cortes' journey at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders began in June 2020, when she was diagnosed with leukemia.
Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
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Izabella Alcantara Cortes' journey at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders began in June 2020, when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Izabella Alcantara Cortes’ journey at the Aflac Center began in June 2020, when she woke up in the middle of the night with back pain. Her family rushed her to the Children’s emergency department and hours later learned Izabella had leukemia. Since then, Izabella has undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Through all the setbacks, Izabella’s mom, Edna Alcantara Cortes, has been a constant source of strength in her daughter’s medical journey. Despite working full time, Alcantara Cortes never missed one of Izabella’s appointments.

“I have always taught my kids to be very independent,” her mom said. “Having me there by her side gave Izabella the strength and confidence to overcome every obstacle that has been thrown her way.”

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Andrew Lawrence, 10: music therapy

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While undergoing chemotherapy treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Andrew Lawrence found comfort in learning how to play the guitar. Photo courtesy of Chldren's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Chldren's Healthcare of Atlanta

While undergoing chemotherapy treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Andrew Lawrence found comfort in learning how to play the guitar.
Photo courtesy of Chldren's Healthcare of Atlanta
Caption
While undergoing chemotherapy treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Andrew Lawrence found comfort in learning how to play the guitar. Photo courtesy of Chldren's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Chldren's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Photo courtesy of Chldren's Healthcare of Atlanta

While undergoing chemotherapy treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Andrew Lawrence found comfort in learning how to play the guitar with one of the music therapists at Children’s. The 10-year-old also has autism spectrum disorder, a diagnosis his mom, Amber Lawrence, said has made it even more challenging for Andrew to understand his medical journey. Working alongside the music therapist has been transformative for Andrew. During a time when emotional comfort is needed most, singing, tapping out a beat and learning to play chords on the guitar have given Andrew a creative escape from the discomfort and stress of treatment. Andrew’s family said they hope to enroll him in music lessons so he can pursue his passion for playing the guitar.

“Mrs. Rachel is so great about getting on Andrew’s level and providing a safe space for him to express himself through music,” Amber Lawrence said. “She makes time to learn the songs that he enjoys so that he can easily relate to her.”

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