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Student donates gifts to children battling cancer

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 10:00 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Keegan Berber, 14, of Ligonier presents Matthew Jacko, 7, of Monroeville with a gift bag of goodies at Children's Hospital of UPMC in Pittsburgh Berber, who has thyroid cancer, delivered gifts she bought with money she raised for the children in the hospital. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review Taken by Jasmine Goldband Monday, December 17, 2012.
Jasmine Goldband
Keegan Berber, 14, of Ligonier gets a big hug from Maggie Buechel, 10, after presenting her with a gift bag of goodies at Children's Hospital of UPMC in Pittsburgh Berber, who has thyroid cancer, delivered gifts she bought with money she raised for the children in the hospital. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review photo taken Monday, December 17, 2012 by Jasmine Goldband

It was this time last year, just several days after Christmas, when Keegan Berber, 14, of Ligonier, was told she had thyroid cancer. The bubbly, easy-going teenager who loves cheerleading, ice cream and hanging out with friends, responded with ‘Well, what do we do now?'

“She has not shed a tear from the day I told her. Her attitude has been amazing,” said her mother, Lesa Short of Ligonier, “I'm so proud of her.”

The thyroid is a small gland located at the base of the neck that produces hormones that control growth and metabolism. Thyroid cancer – when the cells in the gland become abnormal and grow out of control – is unusual in children but has been increasing over the past several years, according to the National Cancer Institute.

In general, there is as excellent long-term prognosis for those with thyroid cancer. The death rate is very low compared with other types of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Because of this, thyroid cancer is sometimes considered a ‘good' cancer to have. Berber has experienced negativity from some who act as if she does not have ‘real' cancer.

“Keegan wants to change the way people view this cancer,” said Short, “She says if it's the last thing she does, doctors are going to stop calling thyroid cancer a ‘good' cancer to have.”

Berber, a ninth-grader at Ligonier Valley High School, had her thyroid removed. She had continuous tests and blood work, and she receives radiation in pill form, which she has to prep her body for, every six months. Before the dosage, Berber must stop taking other medications and follow a strict no iodine diet. She has to primarily eat fresh vegetables and fruits and only a small amount of organic meat in order to starve her body of iodine, said Short. Berber experiences the pain and fatigue that come from having cancer. She is not yet cancer free. Her experiences with cancer are very real and not at all ‘easy.'

Through all the struggles to maintain normalcy, the family has remained positive and insists on holding on to their sense of humor. When Berber's skin took on a green tone, her doctor asked to be sent a picture. Berber and Short sent him a photo of Shrek. “We're always joking around,” said Short, “We try to make the best out of the situation,” said Short.

With more than 50,000 new cases of thyroid cancer being detected each year, according to the American Cancer Society, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC has decided to address the issue by devoting a new center to research of the disease. Though only in its beginning stages, Berber can't wait till the center is open.

“I'm looking forward to it opening and being able to meet other kids with thyroid cancer,” said Berber. Short said she feels it is very important for Berber to find teens she can connect with.

“Keegan and other patients like her have been instrumental in emphasizing the importance of multidisciplinary care for kids and teens with thyroid cancer as we create a thyroid center at Children's,” said Melissa Buryk, MD.

Berber wanted to do something nice for the other kids at Children's Hospital for awhile now, and she decided that Christmas would be an excellent time to do it.

“I wanted to do something good for the kids this Christmas,” said Berber, “Something on my own.”

Berber began to do holiday babysitting for local families and saved all her earnings to purchase gifts for cancer patients at the hospital. Since the hospital could not give her specific names, due to HIPPA laws, Berber decided to cover a range of ages for both sexes. She purchased items including iTunes gift cards, charm bracelets, pillow pets, body sprays and lotions, remote control flying saucers and coloring books.

“I'm so excited to deliver everything,” Berber said.

Berber recently received a Christmas surprise herself. She was informed of the dates for her upcoming Make-a-Wish trip to Hawaii.

“I can't wait,” Berber said, “I've always wanted to go to Hawaii. I really want to swim with the dolphins.”

Cami DiBattista is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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