Survivor strives to help others

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Nearly 78,000 new cases of brain tumors are expected to be diagnosed this year, and more than 4,600 will be diagnosed to people ages 0-19. Brain tumors are the most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children. This year, nearly 17,000 people are estimated to lose their battle with a primary malignant and central nervous system brain tumor (American Brain Tumor Association).

At the tender age of nine, North Penn Junior Lauren Sickel learned that she had a Pilocytic Astrocytoma brain tumor the size of her fist. Within the brief span of forty-eight hours, she discovered that she had the tumor through a routine eye examination and had to have emergency surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to remove the tumor.

“My parents were really scared, but since I was only nine I didn’t know what it was, so I was just kind of confused. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” shared Sickel.

After the surgery was performed, Sickel underwent physical, speech, and occupational therapy. She underwent the rehabilitation process in hopes of returning to her normal routine.

“I don’t think I ever got back to my normal routine necessarily. After the surgery I had to spend two weeks in the hospital and I had to learn how to walk, how to get up out of bed, and pick my head up because it was very hard. And then I did physical therapy for a while, so I had to get physically back to where I was,” shared Sickel.

The physical training helped, but to this day, the tumor has a lasting physical impact on her.

“I have really bad balance because of where [the tumor] was located,” shared Sickel.

Not only did the tumor leave her with physical limitations, but it also left her with a serious emotional impact on her life.  Sickel is a survivor and she is conscious that not many people survive brain tumors.

“I have a lot of friends through the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation that I know [have passed away]. I have two that died of it that I know of, but I’ve heard of a lot of other kids that have [died], but a lot are just struggling through it,” shared Sickel.

Removal of a brain tumor is a high risk surgery that can even lead to death. Sickel is aware that many people can’t undergo surgery, and that she was fortunate to have a milder case.

“A lot of times it all depends on location [of the tumor] on the brain. So if it’s in a good spot like mine was, I was really lucky, they called it a ‘good tumor’ and they could remove it pretty easily,” shared Sickel.

“It was only like a 3 hour surgery,” Sickel reflected jokingly.

Though Sickel was able to have her tumor removed, many do not have this option.

“A lot of people have it in a bad spot. It could be on their optic nerves like on top of their frontal lobe and everything. If they got it removed, it could blind them, so [surgery] is an option, but a lot of the time they’ll just go for chemo or radiation,” shared Sickel.

Since surgery is a risky option, many undergo chemotherapy in hopes to stunt the growth of the tumor.

Beating the brain tumor has allowed Sickel to grow as a person, and stand out from her peers.

“It makes me feel kind of different I guess. It hasn’t been easy that’s for sure, but it’s also kind of cool,” shared Sickel.

Since the surgery, Sickel has been advocating for children with brain tumors. She is a member of the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation. She has also received scholarships to attend Camp Mak-A-Dream in Montana, a camp primarily for people with cancer or friends and family of people with cancer. She has also attended Camp Cranium, a camp for children with brain injuries. Both of these camps offer a one-of-a-kind experience for children with either cancer or brain injuries, and the camp allows them to share their experiences with people who have endured the same struggles they have.

Lauren Sickel and her new family at Camp Mak-A-Dream

submitted photo
Lauren Sickel and her new family at Camp Mak-A-Dream

“It’s also really cool to just meet people that had something like [what I had],” shared a grateful Sickel.

In addition to attending camps, Sickel also mentors patients with brain tumors.

“Mostly I am just a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on. I’ll be in groups on facebook and if somebody says something like that they found out they have [a tumor] again or anything like that I’m just kind of there for them. I want to know what their treatment is and if they’re being treated right, just that kind of stuff,” shared a concerned Sickel.

Working with the kids have humbled her. She helps patients, and the patients unknowingly help her, too. It is truly a mutually beneficial relationship. She started advocating for brain tumor awareness in sixth and seventh grade. By spreading awareness, she hopes to help children placed in the same situation that she was in.

“I didn’t find out about any of this stuff until seventh grade,” she said.

Sickel was not aware that there were even programs out there for children going through the same thing she did. In seventh grade she met a girl who also was a brain tumor survivor. From her, Sickel found out about Camp Mak-A-Dream in Montana.

“I’ve talked to her ever since. We talk on and off because we’re busy, but she’s always there,” she shared.

Being a part of these programs and working with people who have or had brain tumors allows Sickel to be exposed to life-changing experiences.

“It also kind of opened my eyes to see other people who are going through it or went through it, too,” she shared.

Not only has it allowed enlightenment, but it has also allowed her to give back to the community.

“I always like to help people so it makes me feel really good about myself. It makes me realize that I’m not the only one, and that people have it worst,” shared Sickel. “If they have it worst, that’s not good, and I should be there for them. I hope it helps them; I think it does. I hope that they get as much out of it as I do when I’m doing it.”

Though there is not as much public awareness and education of brain tumors and cancers as Sickel would like, she hopes that she will contribute to making more people familiar with these conditions.

“I plan to leave a positive impact on the world for sure. I hope to open people’s eyes a little bit more to not only brain tumors and brain cancer, but to all kinds of cancer because it’s all hard. It’s not fun. And it takes a lot of time to come back from it,” shared Sickel. “I feel like there should be a lot more, and they’re working towards that right now,  but there should be a lot more support for survivors and people going through it,” she admitted.

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