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Cancer survivors connect at Kennywood

| Monday, June 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Alexis Burneisen, 8, from Donora hugs her mother, Dora, during an event at Kennywood to mark National Cancer Survivors Day, Sunday, June 2, 2013. Alexis was there to support her mother, who is a breast cancer survivor.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Ashton Burneisen, 4, from Donora colors with Ellisha Parsons at an event Sunday, June 2, 2013, at Kennywood Park to mark National Cancer Survivors Day. Ashton and Ellisha were there to support Ashton's mother, Dora, who is a breast cancer survivor.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Catriona Finch, 3, dances with Kenny, the mascot for Kennywood Park, during an event to makr National Cancer Survivors Day on Sunday, June 2, 2013. Catriona's father, Dr. Paul Finch, is a hematology fellow at Children's Hospital.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Alexis Burneisen, 8, and Evan Parsons, 8, both from Donora, use sidewalk chalk to draw pictures in support of Alexis' mother, Dora, who is a breast cancer survivor. Children's Hospital celebrated National Cancer Survivors Day on Sunday, June 2, 2013, at Kennywood Park.

Survivors of pediatric cancer and their family members traded the roller coaster rides of transplants, surgery and therapy for actual roller coaster rides on Sunday at Kennywood Park.

About 200 people, including the patients' doctors and nurses from Children's Hospital, filled a picnic pavilion at the amusement park to mark National Cancer Survivors Day.

“It's amazing to see everyone here ... all these other people who have been through the same things I did,” said Matthew Kocher, 20, of North Fayette, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 and pulled through with the help of a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Kristina, 22. “It's nice to know we've all transitioned together into normal lives.”

Five years after patients like Kocher receive their last cancer treatments, they join the UPMC Survivorship Clinic, which helps them and their doctors monitor the potential side effects and complications that can come from radiation, chemotherapy or surgery — such as loss of lung function, higher risk of heart attacks and secondary cancers.

“A survivor of childhood cancer doesn't need an oncologist anymore; they need a good primary care physician who understands their treatments and what they need,” said Dr. Jean Tersak, director of the clinic, which sponsored Sunday's celebration.

“When I was dismissed from my oncologist, I didn't get a sheet of paper saying, ‘You need to watch out for this and this, because it's basically poison you were given,' ” said Marty Randal, 46, of South Fayette, a volunteer with the clinic and a cancer survivor. “We worked so hard to make it the first time, the last thing we want to do is pass away 10 years later of a heart attack.”

The clinic's latest project, Survivor Connect, aims to use text messages, emails and a database of cellphone numbers to remain in touch with young cancer survivors and keep them up-to-date on when they're due for things like tests and appointments, said Noelle Conover, project coordinator.

Many at Kennywood praised the doctors and staff at Children's in Lawrenceville for their work: Matthew Kocher's mother, Lori, 47, said when Matthew's treatment was taking a toll on him emotionally and he wanted a visit from his “best friend,” Tersak was adamant it be allowed to happen — even when it turned out the friend he missed so much was Cassie, his black Lab. But Tersak and the staff at Children's made it possible, unhooking him from his monitors and medications for a few hours to visit his dog in the hospital lobby.

“It just makes me smile,” said Shannon Burgoyne, 32, of Ben Avon, who was diagnosed with leukemia at 17.

Arriving at the picnic pavilion with her parents, husband and two kids, she exchanged a big hug with Tersak.

“Sometimes it takes me back to a scary place in my life, but then I also remember all the love, warmth and kindness,” Burgoyne said. “It's a good feeling.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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