A journey from neuroblastoma to ambassador

In May of 2012, I was a typical 14-year old kid; competitively dancing, playing the viola, involving myself in numerous educational extracurricular activities, and was ranked in the top ten in my high school class. However, my life was forever changed after a mass, weighing nearly 16 pounds, was discovered in my abdomen. The doctors diagnosed me with stage 4 neuroblastoma, an aggressive solid tumor arising in immature nerve cells, which had already spread throughout my bone marrow. At that moment, I felt anxious and a sense of doom, like my world was collapsing before my eyes. I was soon informed that the current survival rate for stage 4 neuroblastoma is only 30 to 50 percent, meaning that up to 70 percent of children diagnosed with this cancer do not survive. Even after being given statistics that weren't in my favor, I decided that day to stay strong and never give up. I have become a fighter, continuing to overcome obstacles and inspire others in similar situations.Since my initial surgery to remove the tumor, I have undergone six rounds of induction chemotherapy, a stem cell harvest, high-dose chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, radiation and immunotherapy. I have been one of the lucky ones and have been no evidence of disease since my second round of chemotherapy. I am also now partaking in a clinical study to maintain my remission status. While undergoing treatment, I spent nearly my entire sophomore year of high school in the hospital, in complete isolation, and in the pediatric intensive care unit. While in treatment, I met other cancer warriors and parents who had children that were not as lucky as I was. These people emphasized the significance of being grateful for the life one is afforded and to take advantage of all opportunities placed in one's path. People came and went, some walking out of the hospital after learning that they had beat this beast called cancer. Others were put on hospice and given days to live. After meeting these inspirational warriors and learning that only 4 percent of the national cancer budget is allocated to pediatric cancer research, I took the initiative and established my own non-profit organization. I created a foundation to increase awareness regarding the commonality of pediatric cancer and to assist adolescents while undergoing treatment. I started a blog to share my experiences with the desire to foster courage and hope in others. Chronicling my journey allowed me to express my inner-most thoughts and feelings, which otherwise I may not have verbally expressed. The responses of those I did not even know influenced my life in a positive manner and encouraged me to continue fighting and maintain an optimistic view. My blog was originally created with the intention of motivating others, but I was actually the one being uplifted. In August of 2013, I was contacted by the St. Baldrick's Foundation, the largest funder of pediatric cancer research grants besides the United States government, to serve as one of its five 2014 St. Baldrick's Ambassadors. The organization hosts thousands of head-shaving events around the nation to stand in solidarity with pediatric cancer warriors and to raise money to fund the best childhood cancer research. I accepted the offer and now attend events around south Florida, serving as a guest speaker and a face of childhood cancer. I have learned about my true self through this experience and I am now able to display my inner passion to serve as an advocate for pediatric cancer. In the future I aspire to become a pediatric oncologist and researcher, giving back to the community that saved my life. This past summer I had the opportunity to work as an intern in a pediatric oncology laboratory at MD Anderson. Working alongside professionals in the field, I learned that an immense amount of knowledge and dedication goes into creating new treatments. I hope one day that I will be able to create innovative treatments and give innocent children a fighting chance. My life mission is to improve the fact that 46 children are diagnosed with cancer and seven will succumb to the disease every day. Lauren Bendesky, 16, from Coral Springs, Fla., was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma when she was 14 years old. Lauren has finished treatment and is looking ahead to college with plans to study biology and become a pediatric oncologist.