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The average child will get six to 10 colds every year, which can really put a damper on things. However, many children endure much worse. Children are diagnosed with cancer at alarming rates. Every day, approximately 43 children begin fighting for their lives after doctors discover that they have cancer.

While there have been advances in the treatments of childhood cancers over the years — there is a much higher survival rate for these children than there was half a century ago — the number of childhood cancer diagnoses has not dropped in the last 20 years.

A Western Michigan native, Candie Ritsema, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, when she was 12 years old and was treated with six months of chemotherapy, followed by a bone marrow transplant.

Ritsema beat her cancer, and went on to become an oncology nurse in order to help children like her.

“…I’m kind of glad I didn’t know what to expect,” Ritsema said. “When I look back, if I would’ve known how bad things were I think I would’ve mentally broke down.”

She now works in Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, where she meets with patients like Carter Piglowski, a five-year-old boy who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He has spinal taps every three months and regular rounds of chemotherapy.

Unlike Ritsema, Carter knows exactly what is going on.

“Immediately after he got diagnosed…we started talking to him about it,” said Amanda Piglowski, Carter’s mother. “We told him that he’s going to beat this he knows he will.”

The advanced treatments available today make Carter’s fight much more promising than her own, which she took on over 20 years ago. She had to travel to a different hospital for her bone marrow transplant, but Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital has all the equipment that kids like Carter need to receive the best possible care.

Ritsema’s desire to take her own unfortunate situation and apply it to helping others has given her great joy and fulfillment, and the empathy she has towards children in the oncology unit has helped many find the strength to keep fighting.

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