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Three-time brain tumour survivor Stephanie Simmons is one of childhood cancer’s greatest adversaries. Among her many efforts to advocate for children facing cancer, the London, Ontario teen has created the Gold Ribbon Campaign to raise awareness about childhood cancer and encourage people to donate blood in the name of cancer’s young victims. There have been many times in recent years where Stephanie Simmons wondered if she’d see her 18th birthday.

She’s spent more than half of her young life battling cancer — enduring years of chemotherapy, receiving the maximum dose of radiation for her lifetime and overcoming the disabilities several brain surgeries left her with.

More than once she wasn’t supposed to make it. But she’s still here, even though other friends who were supposed to make it aren’t.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Stephanie would often bleed from her mouth. Receiving platelets helped ease her suffering. Because of their heavy reliance on blood donations Stephanie’s mother Renee says, “I wish your donors could hear us when we say how thankful we are to them.”

Ever grateful, Stephanie took it upon herself to give back and urge others to join the fight. In 2006 she created the Gold Ribbon Campaign, inspired by the international symbol for childhood cancer. She’s written to numerous corporations to encourage them to put the gold ribbon on their product packaging and has approached Canada Post to create a postage stamp in honour of children who struggle with cancer. She’s also written to media, as a single voice representing hundreds of children who have fallen victim to cancer.

For her contributions, she’s been recognized: In 2011, she received the Ontario Junior Citizen of the Year Award. In 2012, she was the recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Last year, on the cusp of her 18th birthday, Stephanie’s Gold Ribbon Campaign partnered with Canadian Blood Services to encourage families across Ontario to rally together and donate blood to honour childhood cancer survivors and to remember those who lost their lives.

Knowing first-hand the good that comes from people who donate blood for the disease’s young victims, she reached out through media in southern Ontario to encourage fellow Londoners to head to clinics.

This September she’ll do it again to coincide with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Armed with a pen and paper, she’ll advocate for blood donations. Her family will be at her side, and because she can’t speak well as a result of treatment, her sisters will take on speaking engagements for her.

The goal for this year’s campaign is 1,700 units of blood—representing the number the number of children who will be diagnosed with cancer in Canada this year. A child with cancer can require up to five units of blood a week. Their thoughts are timely given that this year Canadian Blood Services needs to recruit nearly 90,000 new donors. If you can’t donate blood, donations in support of childhood cancer organizations and research are welcome.

Taking on a campaign like this is no small feat for someone who has generally felt unwell since she was two.

It started with frequent bouts of vomiting at night. For years Stephanie was treated for food allergies and gastric problems. When she turned nine her health worsened. By 2004, she was so ill school was out of the question. Her left eye turned inward and she had constant, excruciating headaches and 24-hour nausea.

“We were at our paediatrician’s office every other day and at the emergency room three times during the week before getting her diagnosed,” says Renee, who’s also a philanthropy associate with Childcan, the Childhood Cancer Research Association.

Doctors discovered a kiwi-sized tumour in Stephanie’s brain. It was a nightmare repeating itself for Renee, who’d lost her mother to a brain tumour.

Stephanie was scheduled for a brain tumour resection, which took more than 20 hours.

“It was the longest wait of my life,” Renee says.

Stephanie was kept in a coma for two weeks to allow the swelling in her brain to go down. When she woke, she was completely paralyzed and it was painfully clear to her family that she’d suffered serious brain damage.

“I hated to leave her even for a minute,” Renee recalls. “Just because she couldn’t physically cry didn’t mean she wasn’t crying and that broke my heart. How would I know if she was sad or hungry or had an itch or if she hurt somewhere?”

Stephanie had to learn to do everything all over again—eat, walk, talk. Renee says her best therapists were her sisters, Nancy (now 23) and Angela, who is called Pie (now 21). Stephanie was mute for 54 days. To help teach her to be vocal again, her sisters would suck helium from a balloon and speak in cartoon voices that would make her laugh. Stephanie started to hum and within six days she could speak.

A year after the surgery, however, she was hit with another blow. Doctors found a growth in her brain. Stephanie was treated with radiation through the summer of 2005. When the tumour continued to grow she was given eight to 12 weeks to live.

Not about to give up hope, her parents took her to the New York Medical Centre where she underwent surgery to remove 97 per cent of the tumour. She was airlifted home before Christmas to start two years of chemotherapy.

Although tumour-free now, Stephanie has kidney and nerve damage, high blood pressure, and periodic stroke-like episodes. As a result, she takes 15 doses of eight different medicines daily. The tissue at the back of her throat was damaged by radiation and there’s no recovery from that. Given the harsh treatments she’s endured, Stephanie is at risk of post-tumour leukemia. She goes for blood tests every six months for monitoring.

Despite it all, she’s a trooper. And the campaign is just one of the good things that have emerged from the shadows of her cancer.

“Dean (her father) and I couldn’t be more proud of her and her older sisters,” says Renee. “They have handled the last number of years better than we had ever hoped.”

For more information about the Gold Ribbon Campaign, visit their Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/GoldRibbonCampaign. To dedicate your blood donation to the campaign visit www.blood.ca/joinpartnersforlife and join as a member by using partner ID # GOLD01312l. This will ensure your donation will be counted toward the campaign’s total goal.

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