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Flashes of Hope brings smiles to Blue Jackets, young cancer fighters

Six cancer heroes recognized by team as part of Hockey Fights Cancer campaign

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Sophia Lewis wants to be like her mother, Samantha Banks. 

The 16-year-old from central Ohio grew up eating her mother's food and eventually decided she wants to become a chef for a living.  

"My mom is already a really good cook, so growing up and eating her food (is why I want to cook for a living)," young Sophia said. "I love watching (her cook) and eating her food. She makes really good pasta." 

Sophia attends a culinary program at the Eastland Career Center, spending mornings learning the finer points of the field before taking classes in the afternoon. If the TV is on in the family's Gahanna household, it's probably on a cooking show.  

Yet those plans came to a major bump in the road in May when Sophia discovered a lump in her stomach. When it didn't go away, her mother took her to see a doctor on a Monday; by Friday, Sophia was in the oncology wing of Nationwide Children's Hospital going over options for surgery. 

Doctors found she has renal cell carcinoma, a surprising diagnosis of a kidney cancer that mostly impacts older men. The new normal for the family includes plenty of doctors' visits, therapy and other tasks related to helping Sophia get better. 

"Her whole entire summer, she was supposed to be getting a driver's license, getting a job," Banks said. "All of those things have completely been put on hold, so it's frustrating for her. All of her friends are driving around and all of her friends have money now because they have jobs and she doesn't. It's been tough on her for sure." 

That's why days like Monday are so important for the family and others like theirs. Lewis is one of six children fighting cancer at Nationwide Children's Hospital who were nominated and chosen as Blue Jackets cancer heroes this year, part of the organization's annual Hockey Fights Cancer campaign. 

Video: We're Stronger Together

Lewis and the five others -- 14-year-old Cameron Leang, 12-year-old Trey Hodge, 11-year-old Reese Shirey, 9-year-old Evan White and 8-year-old Elyanna Bayler -- were welcomed to Nationwide Arena for the heroes' annual Flashes of Hope photo shoot. 

The day included a chance to watch the Blue Jackets practice; activities including coloring, video games, and arts and crafts; a catered lunch; and the chance to hang out with CBJ mascot Stinger. 

But the highlight of the day was the photo shoot, which included the kids and their families by themselves as well as with Stinger and Blue Jackets players Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Gus Nyquist. The aim is to capture the smiles and forever preserve the images of courage, beauty and dignity that each child has during their fight. 

"It's great for the families who just forget about what they're doing as far as at the hospital and just be able to enjoy a regular photo session," said Judith Martin, one of the directors of the Columbus chapter of Flashes of Hope. "Just to be able to step out of their normal world and being able to enjoy a day with the Blue Jackets, it's wonderful they can come here and get wonderful photo shoots with them and their families. It's a whole day of family." 

PHOTO GALLERY: 2019 Flashes of Hope shoot

Flashes of Hope operates chapters in 55 cities, photographing more than 50 percent of the children annually diagnosed with cancer in the United States while also raising money to fight the disease. The Columbus chapter is a grant partner of the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation, using the funds to stage 10 to 12 photo shoots at events around the central Ohio area each year.  

Inside the Blue Jackets organization, perhaps no such event is anticipated as much as the one that takes place Monday. The Blue Jackets Foundation supports programs like Flashes of Hope throughout central Ohio that support pediatric cancer patients, largely via distraction through play. For one day, one of those signature activities came to Nationwide Arena.  

"We have the privilege of giving these kids a unique experience that takes them out of their day-to-day treatments, and it was awesome to watch their smiles and see them meet the players and get to experience the day," said Katie Matney, interim director of the CBJ Foundation.  

As such, the buy-in was strong throughout the organization, particularly from the players, who not only took pictures with each cancer hero but also chatted with each and signed autographs. 

For someone like Cam Atkinson, who became a father last summer, an event like the photo shoot hit home, especially after he spent time with Leang.  

"It's a pretty surreal moment," Atkinson said of being part of the event. "Especially having a kid, it's a little bit different now. It puts things in perspective pretty quickly. That kid Cam who I met -- obviously he has a great name -- but he has gone through 30 rounds of chemo and the kid is not even 15 years old. It's crazy." 

The six cancer heroes will return to Nationwide Arena to reunite with the organization and the players Nov. 15 for the annual Hockey Fights Cancer Night presented by OhioHealth vs. St. Louis. They'll be a part of a pregame spirit tunnel, be recognized on the ice before opening faceoff and watch the game from a party tower in the arena with their families. 

From there, the bond between the organization and its heroes is one that in many cases lasts a lifetime. Monday was the start of that, and for someone like Lewis, the day stood out as a welcome respite from her new normal.  

"It was really fun getting to see the players," Lewis said. "And I like getting my picture taken, so that was my favorite part." 

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