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Cancer survivors connect at picnic

Mariko Jumper has beaten brain cancer and is now battling cancer of the spine.

Serious? Certainly, but the 10-year-old Richmond girl wasn't letting the big C get her down at Saturday's picnic for cancer survivors.

She ate her fill, listened to the music, laughed at Ronald McDonald's magic tricks and saw a lot of friends.

”It's really fun; it's good for people to play,“ Mariko said.

She saw some of the same kids recently at a special summer camp for cancer survivors, but (and she lowered her voice) ”I can't always remember their names.“

Behind the fun at the 4th annual survivors picnic was an important purpose, explained Dr. Sherry Bayliff, a children's cancer specialist at Kentucky Children's Hospital in Lexington.

More and more children are beating cancer and living longer, as doctors have turned a 65 percent death rate into a 75 percent to 85 percent survival rate for many cancers, Bayliff said.

Doctors want to track their young patients for as long as possible in case the cancer returns or related problems develop, but the tendency is for patients to disconnect after the cancer is defeated.

The picnic, the summer camp and other programs are intended to keep young cancer survivors in touch with their doctors and the year-old Kentucky Children's Hospital Childhood Cancer Survivor Clinic long after they are declared cancer-free.

”They want to step away — and that's understandable,“ Bayliff said. ”When you've been in probably the most difficult battle of your life, you don't want to face the fact that there could be other problems that might rear their ugly heads.“

The clinic is at the University of Kentucky, where doctors have now followed some patients for 30 years or more, she said, but it's the ones they no longer see that worry them most.

”We become their family and we miss them,“ Bayliff added. They have received the gift of ”a second chance“ at life and their UK family wants it to be ”the best and for the longest period possible.“

More than 500 picnic invitations were sent to survivors and their families, said Andrea Nichols, a children's cancer nurse who organized the four-hour event. Fifty to 100 were expected to attend.

The Lexington Cancer Foundation provided support along with more than 100 local businesses that donated food and prizes and in several cases, sent their costumed mascots.

That was a problem for 6-year-old Destiny Ross of Irvine, who hid behind her mother's legs whenever one of the costumed characters came around.

”I don't want to see them,“ she said, shaking her head from side to side.

But Destiny forgot all about the mascots when she got to the cornhole boards and threw the bag through the hole for the first time.

”I did it! I did it!“ she said, jumping around in a circle.

Destiny's cancer was on her adrenal gland, and it is in remission, said her mother, Regina Ballinger of Irvine.

”She has been through a lot, and to have this picnic for her and the others is wonderful,“ Ballinger said.

For Maria Ruelas, the picnic was truly a celebration.

Her 4-year-old son, Jonathan, who got his short hair sprayed green at the picnic, recently completed chemotherapy for a brain tumor, and the outlook is good.

”The chemotherapy was stopped because the tumor is small,“ Ruelas said. ”We are very happy.“