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Sisters Helping Kids with Cancer, One Step At a Time

Shepard High School teacher Jennifer Fischer and Richards High School teacher Debbie Swanson will run a marathon this weekend to help a kids camp that helped Fischer's daughter cope with a cancer diagnosis at 10 years old.

Sisters Jennifer Fischer and Debbie Swanson have a lot in common. Both are teachers within District 218—at and , respectively—both enjoy running and now both will help to give back to a group that helped their family through a very trying time.

When she was 10 years old, Jennifer's daughter, Julia, was diagnosed with dysgerminoma, a germ cell cancer. Her cancer was in remission four months later and as of 2010 she was considered cured (five years remission). But in the interim, Julia and her family gained a lot of support from One Step At a Time, a camp for children affected by cancer.

“She was finished with treatment when she went to camp in June 2005 for the first time,” Jennifer Fischer said. “The one thing I do recall is that they finally encouraged Julia to take off her bandana … It was sort of GI Jane—a few millimeters—and she was embarrassed to have short hair. She came back from camp with her short hair and no more bandana.”

Julia said the camp was also extremely supportive when, in the past year, two of her friends from the camp died.

Julia said although she will be a camper for the final time this winter, she is going to stay active with the group.

“I'm going to continue with a camp in December, for a winter camp. That will be last camp, and then I'll be in training to be a counselor,” she said. “I kind of felt like the camp was a safe place for (kids with cancer). We can all just let our feelings about it, we are all on the same page. It is really nice.”

Julia's mother and aunt also have decided they want to give back. When they run their first full marathon on Sunday, they will be raising funds for One Step At a Time. They hope to raise close to $2,000.

“A huge reason that I wanted to raise some money to support these cancer kids is the ‘pay it forward’ concept,” Jennifer Fischer said. “When Julia was sick ... there was an amazing outpouring of love and support. It was absolutely moving and completely life-changing, and therefore any time I have a chance to do the same, I really think about how generous people were to us and I want to give back.”

Swanson said she also felt compelled to help the organization after seeing how supportive and helpful it was to her niece.

“As an adult, it’s really hard to relate to what a child is thinking about their illness,” she said. “You do the best you can, but allowing them to interact at camp allows for a different experience for them. All of the camp counselors are survivors of pediatric cancer themselves, so they provide a lot of hope to the campers.”

Both women have competed in five half-marathons, but this week's run in the Fox Valley Marathon will be their first full one.

“It is the ultimate personal challenge to see if one can complete a full marathon and I think one feels like, ‘If I can do this marathon, then there is nothing I can’t overcome,’ ” Fischer said. “When the going gets tough and we get tired, we chunk the distance and look in terms of smaller goals … Let’s run the next hill, the library or whatever, and then walk a little”

She said the mental discipline she will use to conquer the marathon is similar to what she asked Julia to find during her fight , when Julia and her used to play games and cheer up others at the UIC hospital.

“When Julia was sick, I told her, ‘Let’s not think about how bad this situation is, let’s look at this like an opportunity to encourage the other kids who are sick in the clinic and make that our focus,’ ” Fischer said. “To this day, Julia says one of her fond memories of being sick is all the 'fun' we had in the hospital.”

The Advocate Dreyer Fox Valley Marathon in St. Charles is not a fundraiser itself, but the sisters have used their own website to raise sponsorship for the camp. Swanson said much of the support came from family and friends.

Julia said she is thrilled that her mother and aunt want to help the camp because she feels such a strong connection to all three of them.

“I am really happy because so many people donate to our camp, but it’s nice to have someone so close and I know who they are doing it for—my friends,” she said.

Julia is currently a junior at Shepard, but she already has plans for after graduation.

“I want to go to college in Illinois and I would like to become a surgical nurse because I thought it was so interesting hearing about the surgeries people had, and going through it, I think it would be a good fit for me,” she said.

One Step At a Time is a program offered through the Children's Oncology Service, Inc.

You can donate to Swanson and Fischer’s fundraising on the FirstGiving website.

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