In medical communities around the country, the 5-year milestone post cancer treatment is known as being “Cancer Free”, but in DM, we know it as Graduation.

Graduation has become a staple celebration during the Big Event but it hasn’t always been around. It began in DM15 following the largest financial milestone DM had ever accomplished in DM14 – $1 million raised in one year! Coming off that year, Brian Martin, the DM15 Family Relations Director wanted to ensure “the focus and efforts continued to be on families first.” With that in mind, he set out to develop a program that would recognize and honor families in a public way that reached the ultimate milestone in their journey.

Why is the 5-year mark so important you may ask? One major reason is that is point in time in which oncologists are comfortable telling families that they are officially “Cancer Free.” There are no guarantees but this milestone correlates with a significant spike in survival rates for most pediatric cancers with a decline in mortality rates. The five-year mark is also important in many clinical trials, which test new treatments, as they use survival to five years as a benchmark. If the treatments are successful at that point, the studies have found, more patients live longer.

To get the conversation started, Brian worked closely with Michelle Altmaier, the Children’s Miracle Network advisor for DM at the time, and the medical staff at UI Children’s Hospital. The hope was to recognize families who reached this incredible milestone and offer them an opportunity to transition away from DM if they felt ready and if was right for them.

When asked about the first graduation, Brian recalled, “we had the vision of how we anticipated it going but ran into some logistical and technical issues when it actually happened. That being said, it didn’t need to run flawlessly for it to be meaningful. The parents who participated had so much pride and were very emotional. In that moment we realized just how much that milestone meant to families and we were happy to have created excitement and value to them.”

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So this year at the Big Event on Saturday afternoon around 3pm, when you hear pomp and circumstance play over the speakers and you see the 20+ kids wearing graduation caps and gowns, remember that this moment signifies one of the most meaningful moments in their lives – being officially, Cancer-Free.

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