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Hockey Fights Cancer Survivor Spotlight

Red Wings celebrate four incredibly brave cancer survivors ahead of Hockey Fights Cancer Night

by Josh Berenter @DetroitRedWings /

DETROIT -- This Saturday, November 27, the Detroit Red Wings are once again joining the fight against cancer as the organization teams up with Comerica Bank and the American Cancer Society to host the annual Hockey Fights Cancer Night at Little Caesars Arena.

Leading up to Hockey Fights Cancer Night, the Red Wings are shining a light on four exceptional people in the metro Detroit community who embody what the fight against cancer is all about with their courage, resilience, advocation and warrior spirit.

"Each season, the hockey community unites to elevate awareness and support for those affected by cancer," Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown said. "The stories of Rachel Hurst, Vara Gordon, Ava Csutoras and Harper Mathis are reflective of so many individuals in our community who have been affected by childhood cancer. These stories are why we work alongside the American Cancer Society for Hockey Fights Cancer Night."

Video: Red Wings | "I Fight For" | Hockey Fights Cancer

Take a look at the stories of the four inspirational people below in our Hockey Fights Cancer Survivor Spotlight:


Rachel Hurst

Rachel Hurst was a normal 17-year-old college student at Ferris State University in November 2004 when her life changed forever.

Hurst learned she had a tumor above her heart and was rushed to the hospital to undergo emergency surgery. During her biopsy, surgeons noticed a swollen lymph node and immediately knew it was cancer.

Hurst later learned that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, which is extremely rare for females and especially females her age. Because of the rarity of her disease, Hurst's path of treatment was extremely aggressive, as she underwent four months of chemotherapy and almost a straight month of radiation.

After fighting through grueling side effects, like barely being able to walk from pain, a severe sepsis blood infection and the loss of all her hair, Hurst was declared cancer-free and began her journey as a survivor.

Hurst has now been cancer-free for 16 years and is thriving as a corporate affairs manager and media spokesperson for Kroger.

She began representing the American Cancer Society in 2011 as a Relay for Life event chair and is currently co-chair for American Cancer Society's Gold Together Michigan, along with our next featured survivor, Vara Gordon, raising hope and awareness in the fight against cancer.


Vara Gordon

Vara Gordon's story of strength and resilience to battle cancer not once, but twice, is truly a remarkable story of survival.

Gordon was diagnosed with nephroblastoma in March 2016 at 9 years old. Her parents thought she had a bladder infection, but three days after a trip to urgent care, doctors learned she had a WILMS tumor, which indicates a rare type of kidney cancer, so Gordon needed to have her kidney removed immediately.

After enduring six months of grueling treatment, which included seven rounds of radiation and 28 weeks of chemotherapy, Gordon was declared cancer-free.

Unfortunately, though, nine-month scans revealed cancer returned and moved to her lung, which meant more surgery, requiring a protocol that was not yet proven. Her parents consulted with specialists and learned that this was their only option before 100% experimental treatments.

Gordon fought through another nine months of treatment, requiring more than 180 doses of six types of chemotherapy and 10 rounds of radiation.

During her nine-month stint in the hospital, Gordon spent her time giving back to her peers, creating awareness campaigns and vowing to support awareness.

While she was in the hospital, Gordon met Hurst, and the two began a friendship that lasts to this day. Gordon is now a thriving 13-year-old seventh grader and has been cancer-free since March 2020.

Her mother said Gordon and Hurst have a special common bond through their survivor stories.

"The brave young warrior met Rachel, and together, they share a bond that seems unbreakable and formidable for the toughest of cancers," Emily Gordon said. "We are eternally grateful to have met Rachel and to have known such an advocate, warrior and friend. Cancer takes many things, but it has given us hope, courage and Rachel."

Video: Detroit Red Wings | Hockey Fights Cancer Promo


Ava Csutoras

After experiencing extreme leg pain at the age of 3, Ava Csutoras was diagnosed on November 15, 2016 with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in bones or soft tissue around the bones.

Ten days later, Csutoras was taken into surgery to have a medical port placed in her chest and start chemotherapy immediately. She was admitted for chemo treatments sometimes for a week at a time. If she wasn't admitted for treatment, she was at Hurley Medical Center in Flint to get her blood tested.

Because the tumor was growing from inside her bone, Csutoras had surgery in February 2017 to have her left femur replaced. She continued chemo treatments until September 2017.

Csutoras has now been cancer-free for more than four years and is thriving. She is 8 years old and enjoys a normal sibling rivalry with her two brothers. Csutoras is in third grade and enjoys playing soccer and competing in gymnastics.


Harper Mathis

Harper Mathis was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor, in July 2020 at the age of 10, just one month before her 11th birthday.

Mathis had surgery to remove her tumor and dealt with radiation treatment and nine cycles of chemotherapy.

During her treatment last June at the University of Michigan's Mott Children's Hospital, Mathis' family joined forces with another family of a childhood cancer survivor to create a lemonade stand fundraiser in Ann Arbor.

The event was meant to supplement a fundraiser made through Alex's Lemonade Stand, a foundation that raises awareness and research funds for child cancer.

The fundraiser more than doubled its original $5,000 goal, raising $10,355 for cancer research and awareness.

Mathis completed her last chemotherapy cycle in September 2021. The 12-year-old is full of life and will continue monthly blood draws and oncology visits with MRIs every three months.

Mathis' mother said part of the brave girl's motivation to get through treatment comes from her idol, U.S. women's national team star Alex Morgan, as she hopes to get back on the soccer field as soon as possible. Shellie Mathis said her daughter has never let cancer define her and she's looking forward to going back to school in person soon.

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