Anna Bickell is a seven-year-old survivor who is paying it forward to a boy she’s meeting for the first time tomorrow (Nov. 4).
Two years after battling cancer, Anna is a healthy Grade 2 student and she, dad Mark, mom Lisa, and 10-year-old brother Matthew are hoping to pass on the positive experience they had — through the BC & Yukon Chapter of The Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada — to a family in Maple Ridge.
Children’s Wish — which grants the wishes of children ages three to 17 diagnosed with a life-threatening illnesses — sent the Bickell family to Disney’s Aulani Resort in Oahu, Hawaii this past February.
“Lisa and I were very touched by our experience with Children’s Wish,” said Mark, who described the non-profit as “an organization that you want to be part of, because you see the joy and good that they bring from something that was quite the opposite.”
This marks the second year that the Bickell family is involved in an ‘Exile Island’ fundraiser, and this time around they’re helping another family. They paired with a corporate team last year, but for 2016 decided they wanted to be on the other side of the equation, signing up to participate as fundraisers.
Modelled after the television show Survivor, ‘Exile Island’ is an annual fundraising event for Children’s Wish that challenges local businesses to gather their tribes and take part in an action-packed afternoon, all in a united effort to grant heartfelt wishes.
Exile Island BC takes place today (Nov. 4) at the Richmond Oval.
Teams are paired with a local ‘Wish Kid’ — an honourary member of their ‘tribe’ — and members work together to raise the goal amount of $10,000 per team, with a target of $150,000 for the event.
During the event, teams compete in a series of mental, physical, creative, and strategic challenges, battling head-to-head to win the title of “B.C.’s Ultimate Survivors.”
Anna said she’s most looking forward to “waving the flag” during today’s event.
She and her family have teamed up with the Goerzens, a Maple Ridge wish family led by former wish kid, Jesse, to grant the wish of Logan Mate, a 10-year-old “heart kid” diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) at birth.
Logan is still deciding on his wish, but is leaning towards a Disney cruise.
“He [Logan] likes tanks and video games and he’s the same age as our Matthew,” Lisa said.
Last year, the family was sponsored by a book club from Surrey and their team name was Bookin’ It For Anna.
“We’re so happy to be able to return as sponsors this year,” Lisa said.
You can donate online for their cause at www.crowdrise.com/WishFamilyFundraisers.
After sharing their experience with family and friends, the Bickells immediately started putting a team together to pay it forward to another family benefiting from Children’s Wish.
But life became busy and their plans were put on hold.
“We just weren’t organized enough this year,” Mark said.
During the late summer, however, Lisa spoke at a charity golf tournament on behalf of Children’s Wish, to let them know that the family would like to be involved in an ‘Exile Island’ event in some form, and to also let them know that there was another wish family wanting to put a team together.
“And here we are,” Mark said earlier this week. “Anna is a very shy child, while her brother, Matthew, is not so much. We attended the Exile Island launch party and we got to see a video from last year which got the kids pretty excited. As we get closer to this Friday, the excitement builds.”
Anna has already been through a lot in her young life. She was diagnosed with posterior fossa ependymoma (a malignant brain tumour), a day after she turned five.
She underwent surgery at BC Children’s Hospital on Aug. 27, 2014 to remove the tumour.
Doctors worked quickly — the operation came two days after Anna’s diagnosis.
This was followed by 33 radiation sessions over seven weeks.
There was one significant red flag leading to Anna’s diagnosis. Over a six-week period, she had been vomiting — but only in the mornings.
A series of appointments eventually led to a referral from a pediatrician for a CAT scan at BC Children’s, that revealed the tumour.
Reflecting on the Children’s Wish trip, Mark’s memories aren’t necessarily about the excursion itself.
“The trip to Hawaii was great and the kids had a fabulous time, but it is the whole experience that made it so special,” he said. “Being involved in the Exile Island fundraising event and also being partnered up with such a great group of ladies that raised the money for our Wish made it an experience rather than a gift.”
“The impact for us was huge,” Lisa said. “For us, it was the one of the first times [since the diagnosis] that we started to see Anna be herself again. It made a huge difference to how our family was feeling; it gave us some positive memories. It was really a silver lining.”
Mark remembers the excitement that the kids felt when the family received their package from the courier.
It included all of the trip details as well as some toys and stuffies for the kids.
While Anna was the one who was sick and was granted the wish, her big brother also went through some hard times.
“They did such a great job including him in everything, so that it was a wish for him, too,” Mark said. “Our main goal was to have something where the whole family could enjoy the moment, try to put the past behind us and ‘reset,’ if you will. They made that happen and then some.”
Lisa said there is a misconception that Children’s Wish only helps kids who have a terminal diagnosis.
“Their reach is so much bigger than that,” she said. “For us, it was something to look forward to at the end of this illness and treatment that we had to go through. It was our finish line, so to speak. That trip, for us, was a chance to turn the page and leave the bad behind us, and start a new chapter. Let some of that stuff go.”
Anna doing ‘fantastic’
Mark and Lisa get asked about Anna almost every day by friends, family and co-workers.
“In general, I think she is doing fantastic,” Mark said.
That said, Mark noted that “we will forever be worried about Anna” as she will have to get an MRI done every six months to confirm that the tumour hasn’t returned.
“Every parent will always worry about their child no matter what their age,” Mark said. “We will always just have one more worry.”
Lisa said cancer “completely changes everything.”
“We were shocked more than anything else,” she said, of the diagnosis. “Our whole world just stopped.”
Mark said he sometimes catches himself watching his little girl, and being amazed at the little things that girls her age are normally doing.
“But for Anna I know that they are big leaps of progress,” Mark said.
To wit: Anna learning to ride her bike and playing baseball this past summer, and even the social aspect of joining in with friends to play at recess.
“When she was sick, she wasn’t able to go out and play with friends as she was too tired…,” Mark said.
Anna would spent three months either in bed, on the couch or in the car going back and forth to the hospital, and she missed the first half of kindergarten.
All of that, combined with the effects of Anna’s radiation treatment took her a long time to recover from.
“So when Mark sees Anna happy and bouncing around like a typical seven-year-old girl should, he said he “can’t help but smile and enjoy the moment.”
During that challenging period that followed Anna’s initial diagnosis and treatment, Mark and Lisa were fortunate to have the support of their family, friends and co-workers and neighbours.
“They talk about having a ‘Village’ of support,” Mark said. “We are definitely lucky enough to know that we have our village and we will forever be grateful. We will never be able to pay back all of those who helped us, which is maybe another reason why we want to pay it forward through Children’s Wish.”