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Cancer survivors celebrate life

Citizen Staff Writer



A 10-year-old picnic organizer with cancer and some leukemia survivors who were told they wouldn’t survive their illnesses braved 40 mph winds Sunday during a picnic for bone marrow transplant patients – because they could.

“I told my doctor I thought only hams could be cured,” said Jeff Mendelsohn, 55, who received a bone marrow transplant in Oct. 1992. “It was experimental when they did mine.”

Mendelsohn is “recovered” for the past 14 years and attends the picnics for bone marrow transplant patients when he can.

“I’m glad I’m still here,” Mendelsohn said. “I wonder sometimes what I’m here for.”

Mendelsohn almost gave up during his treatment, but others, including singer John Denver, inspired him. Now he volunteers at the transplant center to inspire others.

“Its wonderful to see all the survivors, (but) it’s heartbreaking to see all the children,” Mendelsohn said.

The majority of the transplant patients at the picnic were young children whose laughter gave no hint of what they have been through.

“When your option is either fight for your kid or not . . . you do what you have to do,” said Mark Bryant, who works at the UA College of Humanities.

Bryant’s daughter, Bianca, 9, was diagnosed with liver cancer at 10 months old and has gone through eight rounds of chemotherapy, the removal of half of her liver, and a bone marrow transplant, Bryant said.

Bianca finished her treatment in 1999 and has no signs of remission, Bryant said.

He said Bianca had a 25 percent chance of survival and one surgeon asked her parents why they were bothering with treatment.

Now she swims, plays the violin, and is in fourth grade at Davis Bilingual Learning Center.

“I’m with Los Aguilitas,” Bianca said. “It’s a mariachi band.”

The day’s events, totaling over $15,000 in costs was put on by the Love Comes First Foundation started by Kassandra Okvath, 10, also a transplant patient.

Kassandra is known by her letter to “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” TV show, which won a makeover for rooms in the children’s cancer ward at University Medical Center.

“She looked at me and said, ‘No kid should ever have to die staring at a white wall,’ ” Kassandra’s mother Nichol Okvath said.

Kassandra’s transplant was successful but her type of cancer often returns.

In the face of a less than 20 percent survival rate, Kassandra continues to serve others. She raises funds for the annual picnic through donations and selling her handmade necklaces.

“She can’t do this alone, she’s 10 years old,” Nichol Okvath said. “We need corporate sponsors.”

Kassandra told her mother not to start charities after she’s gone. She wants to do it herself.

“I want to make them feel better and get the families out,” Kassandra said of the picnic.


For more information, contact:

Love Comes First Foundation

3578 E. Redfield Road

Gilbert, AZ 85234

(480) 370-3782

Web site: www.lovecomesfirst.com

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