Cancer research activists are using September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, to draw attention to how pediatric cancer impacts families of child patients.
A bout with cancer hasn't stopped Jay Tucker from chasing his dreams.
The 18-year-old son of Steve and Janice Tucker of the Clayton community, Jay on Saturday participated with the 12th annual Williams Walk and Run, which raises money for the Atlanta-based Brain Tumor Foundation for Children.
It was Tucker's second year participating in the event with members of BridgePointe Church, where he attends services with his family.
Tucker's bout with cancer came at age 16 in the midst of football season. He was home-schooled and played football with the King's Academy's Crown Knights team.
Tucker was experiencing debilitating sinus headaches. He suffered a concussion during football practice, and doctors performed a Computerized Axial Tomography Scan and found a tumor on his medulla.
Doctors diagnosed him with medulloblastoma, a malignant tumor of the central nervous system. Mrs. Tucker said the family couldn't believe the news.
"It was like joining a club you never asked to join," she said. "We were like a deer in headlights."
Tucker said he was "shocked and scared" by the diagnosis.
"It was definitely a heart-wrenching experience," he said.
The Brain Tumor Foundation for Children immediately stepped in and began helping the family with everything from gas cards to making sure they were eating.
Tucker had 30 rounds of radiation, surgeries to remove the tumors and 12 months of chemotherapy treatments.
He finished treatments in October 2009 and has follow-up MRIs every 3 months.
Tucker is now working to obtain his GED and wants to attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando to study to become a motorcycle mechanic.
Mrs. Tucker said her son was lucky as he received a reduced amount of radiation because of his participation in a clinical trial. Many children, she said, aren't as fortunate.
She said she hopes people in the community use September as a time to reflect on how easily cancer can change your life.
"You never know what child will be next," she said. "It may be your own."
For Lauren O'Prey, the threat of her tumors returning is not stopping her from aiding an organization that's helped many like her.
Ms. O'Prey, now a fifth-grade teacher at Barrow Elementary School in Athens, also walked with her family and friends in the Williams Walk.
She and her family have done so since 2006 after she was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type 2 during her senior year at Etowah High School.
The disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health, is characterized by the growth of noncancerous tumors in the nervous system.
Ms. O'Prey, now 23, received the diagnosis after undergoing a routine eye exam when her optometrist noticed something behind her eye.
An MRI revealed Lauren had five brain and spinal tumors: one on each of her acoustic nerves, one behind her left eye and two tumors fused together on the middle portion of her brain.
The two fused tumors were removed in May of 2005. The right acoustic nerve tumor was removed at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles in June of 2006, which did lead to a loss of hearing in that ear.
She was able to graduate from Etowah and from the University of Georgia. Initially, Ms. O'Prey was undergoing scans every six months, but now doctors perform one four-hour "total brain and spinal" MRI scan every year. Her health has been stable since 2006, and if her scan next year is normal, she only will undergo scans every two years.
Ms. O'Prey said she's thankful for the people who support the Brain Tumor Foundation for Children, as the organization helped her family through its darkest hour.
The organization, she said, also provides comfort to children suffering from cancer.
"It's important to offer these guys the full life they deserve," she said of children with cancer.
Their daughter's own suffering was enough to motivate Eddie and Tammy Hunter of Ball Ground to create the Hayley Hunter Research Fund. It raises money for CURE Childhood Cancer, a nonprofit organization that funds research and provides education and support to families.
The Hunters are preparing for their second annual Hayley Hunter Research Fund Golf Tournament at 9 a.m. on Thursday at Bradshaw Farm Golf Club. Money raised will go toward CURE and fund pediatric cancer research at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Clinic at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. The cost is $100 per player, and the fee includes range balls, green and cart fees, lunch and a donation to the fund.
Hayley's story will be featured today on CURE's website at www.curechildhoodcancer.org.
Mrs. Hunter, who sits on the board for CURE, said the organization began featuring children last year during the month of September, and said it was a hit among donors.
Hayley, 10, was diagnosed in April 2008 with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that develops from branches of nerves from the spinal cord. Before her diagnosis, Hayley experienced leg cramps. Her mother took her to her pediatrician who noticed Hayley's spleen was enlarged.
After looking at Hayley's midsection, doctors discovered multiple tumors in her abdominal and chest cavity.
The cancer also had spread to the lymph nodes in her neck, making Hayley a stage-4 patient.
Last year, Hayley completed chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation - with high-dose chemotherapy and an infusion of stems cells previously collected from Hayley.
Hayley now "looks fantastic," according to her mother, as she's gained weight and currently is cancer free. However, she noted doctors said Hayley has a 50- to 60- percent chance of relapsing.
Mrs. Hunter said she hopes everyone in the community educates themselves about the challenges facing young children with cancer.
One example, she said, is the drugs used on treatment for children are intended for adults. The pharmaceutical industry, she said, doesn't "sink money into research" like they do for adult cancer research.
And many people, she added, routinely turn a blind eye from pediatric cancer, as they aren't directly impacted.
"These children are forgotten," she said.