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Young cancer survivor is the voice of hope

Spending all day inside, isolated from family and friends, makes it hard for any child to stay motivated to fight stage three lymphoma.

CJ George had already had to get rid of his pet cat and snake due to risk of infection. He was no longer allowed to swim in the lake by his North Miami home or play his favorite sport, hockey.

He made new friends at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, only to see some of them pass away.

The first six months were the hardest, CJ said. That’s when he joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and began speaking to other kids with cancer to give them inspiration. Then CJ and his mother, Dawn George, founded Children Battling Cancer, a non-profit organization that provides social events and financial aid for others.

“He would share his story and promote the society while he was still on treatment,’’ Dawn George said. “The more he shared, the better he did on his battle. It was a great distraction for him.’’

Within the last year, CJ has been recognized as the Florida Panthers Foundation Ambassador, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Boy of the Year and the Hyundai Hope on Wheels National Youth Ambassador for 2012-2013.

“First when you see him, he definitely shines, he has a great smile and lights up the room,’’ said Sheriann Namer, director of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk. “When he speaks you begin to feel what he went through and you’re inspired to do more.”

CJ was just 9 when he was first diagnosed. He didn’t understand what the doctors were talking about.

“It’s an aggressive cancer and we didn’t know if he would survive,” his mother said.

Normally an active kid, CJ wasn’t able to play hockey, his favorite sport.

“One of my goals was to get through treatment so I could play hockey,’’ CJ recalled.

But soon CJ realized he wanted to help other kids going through treatment. He began giving speeches about surviving the disease, and encouraging others to give financial donations.

“The doctors told me I had two years of chemotherapy, but it went by a lot faster than I thought it would,” CJ said. “Once I realized that others were going through it, I wanted to start helping out.”

Now 13 years old and in remission, CJ hasn’t stopped his fundraising and support efforts.

Once a month, CJ meets with the Youth Advisory Council at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood to share ideas that can help make a hospital more fun for patients.

The team has put together its own Olympic games — complete with medals — and has plans for a haunted house in October.

CJ and his mom still run Children Battling Cancer, which treats families to movie nights, ice skating and other fun events.

They take chemotherapy bags and use them to collect spare change, or fill them with letters to children now going through the process. The chemo bags were a way to turn something that was scary to the kids into something fun, Dawn George said.

With all the fundraising CJ did, social worker Elisa Jones urged him to apply to be the Hyundai Hope on Wheels National Youth Ambassador.

Hyundai contributes $14 from each car sale to the cause. In operation since 1998, Hope on Wheels has raised $57 million, which is used for pediatric cancer research. Among the medical centers which have gotten grants are the Chris Evert Children’s Hospital in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Children’s Hospital.

Every two years, Hyundai Hope on Wheels chooses a child who can share his or her story with other children fighting cancer and give them hope.

In March, CJ’s family was surprised and proud to hear that Hyundai Hope on Wheels chose CJ as the National Youth Ambassador. They were even more excited when the national kick off for the Hyundai Scholar Program was on CJ’s birthday, April 5.

“He had a great story of victory and hope that shows we’re all in this together,’’ said Zafar Brooks, program director of Hyundai Hope on Wheels. “There’s always one child and one family feeling down about the journey they’re about to go on and where it’ll go.”

Brooks said there are about 15,000 cases a year of children with cancer in the United States.

“That may not seem like a lot, but in the grand scheme, it only needs to happen to you one time,’’ he said. “It’s not like you have a neighbor to ask what they went through.”

CJ will travel to 8 to 10 locations each year to speak to kids at children’s hospitals. He’s already traveled to New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago. He’s most excited to be heading to Washington, D.C., where he’ll speak to a national audience to spread awareness of pediatric cancer. Sometimes, his entire family — mom, dad and three siblings — get to go with him.

Said CJ: “I want to be an inspiration to other kids to keep pushing forward and not give up.’’