EDMONTON, AB - As kids, many of us couldn't wait to grow up and live out our childhood dreams.
For youth fighting for their life at the Kids with Cancer Society, they're forced to grow up too fast.
"I don't know too many adults who can take on what these kids take on. It's so beautiful to watch," Melissa Bandi, mother to Ava DeGannes, a 13-year-old battling cancer, said. "I think the worst part as a parent is you can't help them, and you have to answer questions like, 'Will I die?'"
"These kids become adults very quickly," Val Figliuzzi, Executive Director of the Kids with Cancer Society, explained. "A lot of them endure in a very short period of time what adults won't ever have to face, and they take it in stride."
Taking it in stride with hope on their mind.
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"Hope is the one thing that's stronger than fear because it's the happiness and strength in everybody," DeGannes continued. "It gives people the will to keep moving forward."
Over the last 20 months, DeGannes fought off Osteogenic Sarcoma - a type of bone cancer - with tumors continuing to appear in her lungs.
"I'm done chemo treatment, that's why these luscious locks have grown back," joked DeGannes while brushing her fingers through her brunette curls. "I've been through an eight-hour surgery, a knee replacement, four lung surgeries, chemo, biopsies… literally name anything and I've probably been through it."
On Sunday, she dropped the ceremonial puck at the Oilers game against the Vegas Golden Knights as part of Hockey Fights Cancer night.
"That was literally the best moment of my entire life!" she exclaimed as she walked with her cane to her mom.
"She's been through so much, so to just feel the support of the entire arena was pretty spectacular," Bandi said.
For nearly the last decade, Hockey Fights Cancer has been providing much-needed funds and awareness for the Kids with Cancer Society and the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation (EOCF). This year, toques were sold on the concourse for $20.
The amount of support the event gets from Oil Country is always inspiring to Figliuzzi.
"From our perspective, we feel so much gratitude for this event," she said. "The EOCF saw the potential in this program and really allowed us to grow it into what it is today."
"A guy downstairs just showed up and bought 125 toques," Janelle Benning, who was selling the knitted hats, said in awe. "He knew about this event and was taking orders for colleagues and friends… it's amazing!"
The money raised for the Kids with Cancer Society from the Hockey Fights Cancer program helps integrate kids back into schools to find their new norm through the BrainWorks Program.
"Let's use the example of a child with a brain tumor," Figliuzzi explained. "Before the diagnoses, they were high-functioning in school and had no problems with social interactions. Now they have this horrible disease and it affects them in many ways. The BrainWorks program identifies those children and works with the school to implement learning strategies and provide special equipment. It puts things in place to allow them to reach their full potential."
Bandi said her daughter didn't need to take advantage of the BrainWorks program, but used most of the other programs offered at the Kids with Cancer Society.
"Ava had family buying toques from Ontario and around Canada," she said. "The Kids with Cancer Society is an unbelievable support system for families in pediatric cancer."
For DeGannes, and the many other kids just like her, they may have to push the pause button on their childhood experiences, but they'll never stop dreaming of what life could look like.
"I really want to be a pediatric oncologist so I can help the kids that I once was."