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Oregon teen who survived cancer hopes to help kids facing same tough diagnosis

Kaitlin Gartrell, 19, is using money from a special scholarship to pursue her dream in pediatric oncology after her own journey with childhood cancer.

MULINO, Ore. — Like many college freshmen, Kaitlin Gartrell is tip-toeing through a unique kind of college experience.

“Well, considering that I'm taking class from my childhood bedroom, it's pretty good for online,” she smiled.

The 19-year-old graduated from Canby High School last year and is now virtually attending class at Pepperdine University. Gartrell is laser-focused on her career goals.

“From a very young age, I was like 'I want to be a doctor' or something of that kind. It was kind of always something that I dreamed of doing,” Gartrell said. 

Her passion became pediatric oncology because she’s already walked in those shoes.

“When I was 3 years old, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” she said. “I'd been sick for a couple months and then my parents got the news, and my journey started with a two-week stay in the hospital.”

As Gartrell went through treatment, her mom stopped working to stay home with her full-time. The journey made her whole family closer, but at a financial cost.

Credit: Kaitlin Gartrell

“Since my family spent a lot of our money on cancer treatment and stuff when I was younger, I have to put myself through college myself. So, I'll be paying for everything on my own,” said Gartrell.

Thanks to a $10,000 scholarship from Northwestern Mutual, the burden is a little lighter. It’s part of a company program created to ease financial stress for cancer survivors pursuing a college education. Gartrell is one of 43 scholarship recipients nationwide.

“Overcoming cancer was such a huge feat when I was younger that I've always wanted to just keep reaching goals and things, because I think from that age it made me very goal-oriented and just a fighter,” she said.

Leaning on her family and support system was the greatest weapon in her cancer fight. Today, she’s looking forward to walking alongside others faced with a tough diagnosis.

“It's something that I've experienced, it's something that I'm really passionate about and it affected my life so much,” said Gartrell. “How could I not want to give back to other kids that have to do that?”

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