Six-year survivor pays it forward

Natasha Helbling, a six-year cancer survivor, happily made her annual trip back to Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee Feb. 8 to drop off dozens of new and gently-used stuffed animals that she says help kids heal.

By Maureen Vander Sanden

Contributor

It’s hard to believe that not long ago today’s young and vivacious Natasha Helbling was battling cancer, with routine trips to the hospital for rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and related surgeries.

Last week, the 23-year-old University of Wisconsin-Whitewater graduate celebrated six years of being cancer free, by taking her annual visit to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where she brought dozens of cuddly, stuffed animals to share with young patients being treated in the outpatient oncology unit.

During her bout with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Helbling said she was comforted by being able to choose from an assortment of stuffed animals and other gifts that were dropped off at the hospital by kindhearted folks.

“Whenever I went to Children’s, I would go to the table and grab something. Even being 17, I would take things with me, and it cheered me up,” she said.

Now a survivor, the young woman known to friends as “Tasha” commemorates her successful fight against cancer with an annual gesture she says helps heal.

Helbling reached out to her small community at  Washington-Caldwell School to ask for donations of new or gently used stuffed animals, and collected nearly 250.

“Nurses say they appreciate it so much,” she said. “When little kids get pricked, you give them a stuffed animal and it keeps their minds off it.”

She recalled the first time she and her mother brought in a collection of stuffed animals and saw the delight on kids’ faces as they helped themselves to the table of toys.

It was enough for her to make the collection a ritual.

“One of the first times we brought them up, I went back into room for my checkup and came back out and saw a boy in the hallway, holding one of my stuffed animals,” she recalled.

“To give back – really, that what it’s all about. People cared about me and I wanted to do the same.”

 

“Being sick” was never an option

At the start of her senior year at Union Grove High School in 2006, Helbling got the troubling diagnosis. After having a suspicious lump on her collarbone checked out (which she didn’t think much of), and taking a series of tests, doctors determined Helbling had cancer.

She and her close circle of friends and family were shocked by the news.

After all, she was a star athlete, who played basketball and ran track. She even set a school record for the pole vault. Her senior year was supposed to be spent enjoying her social life and preparing for college, not battling a terminal illness.

“When I was a kid, I never went to the doctor because I was never sick, and never felt sick,” she said. “As a teenager I never felt sick, either, so I didn’t think anything was wrong. I felt fine.”

For Helbling, “being sick” was never an option – especially since in the world of cancer, she considered herself lucky. She learned she had Lymphoma, which has an 80 percent cure rate, she was told.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be fine,” she said, “I never actually cried that much. After the initial shock, I was like, ‘OK, what do I have to do to beat this thing?’”

For the next six months, before school and in-between school sporting events, dances and other activities that typical teens enjoy, Helbling went through rounds of chemo every two weeks, along with daily doses of radiation.

“As a teenager, I didn’t want to miss out. I wanted to be around, so I still did stuff,” she said.

“I still got to do everything,” she continued. “I went on our class trips to New York and Washington D.C. I’ll never forget, my mom was at our cabin up north and had a plane ticket ready to leave from the small airport in Lac De Flambeau in case I needed her.

“She didn’t need to use it.”

Like any other teenage girl would be, Helbling felt devastated when she began losing her hair in clumps as a result of chemotherapy. Even with unbearable pain from multiple surgeries, aching joints and deep tissue loss, losing her hair, she said, was the lowest point of her battle.

But she made the best of it and with a strong support system; she always kept her spirits up.

“They never let me get down on myself, that was one of the most important things,” she said.

“A positive attitude is half the battle. If you have a good attitude and stay positive, that will help you get through.”

Through it all, she felt blessed Helbling said, especially considering what others at Children’s Hospital were going through.

She also learned too quickly not to sweat the small stuff.

“It’s cliché in a way, but you learn that a lot of little things don’t matter much, and you look at the bigger picture,” she said. “I had a friend who was only 13 and passed away at Children’s.”

Her positive energy was noted quickly by hospital staff.

“A lot of teens get really depressed and I was abnormal that way,” Helbling said, recalling when a nurse asked if she would be willing to speak with other youngsters battling cancer.

“I met a lot of kids that way. That was kind of neat,” she said. “You grow up a little bit, when they put you in that role.”

Reaching out to youngsters at that time also paved the way to her future in education.

“I wanted to be a teacher as soon as this happened,” she said.

“Seeing the kids at the hospital touched me in a way that I really wanted to work with them.”

Shortly after she was declared cancer free, Helbling went on to earn a teaching degree from UW-Whitewater, before landing a job at Washington School in Tichigan, where she continues to inspire kids.

 

 

 

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