When Kids Get Cancer, Pinky Swear Offers a Lifeline

Within days of then 5-year-old Kaleb Klimek’s leukemia diagnosis, an orange envelope containing gift cards arrived to help the family pay for essential needs. It was a virtual hug from the Pinky Swear Foundation when they needed it most. At one point, when Kaleb was in the hospital for six months, the foundation helped the family with a house payment.

For anyone faced with a childhood cancer diagnosis, one fact quickly becomes apparent: Cancer is messy. It turns routines and finances upside down and puts a family’s ‘normal’ life on hold.

Pinky Swear Foundation helps families with everyday expenses, from housing, groceries, gas and other financial aid, to ease the burdens of life when a medical crisis overwhelms.

“It was a very difficult time for Kaleb and for our family,” said Casandra Klimek, Kaleb’s mother. “We had no idea what resources there were. We had heard about this great organization called Pinky Swear, which helped us financially. Then we were also contacted by Geneva Capital, who handed our family a check.”

A lonely journey

Kaleb has been a fighter since day one. Born prematurely in 2014, he spent the first two weeks of his life in hospital. When he was one month old, he underwent heart surgery and spent another three months in the hospital.

His parents were overjoyed when they finally took their first child home and started living as a family in Miltona, a city in west-central Minnesota.

But at age 4, a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop sent Caleb to the local emergency room and eventually to St. Cloud Hospital. After days of other treatments, an ear, nose, and throat specialist performed cautery surgery to prevent more nosebleeds, and his parents took him home to recover.

It was a short breather.

Within a week, his parents noticed what appeared to be bruises on his arms and legs. So, within a month of the nonstop nosebleed, Kaleb and his parents were at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where specialists from the Cancer and Blood Disorders Clinic were considering next steps.

The result: Kaleb was found to have a low platelet count, eventually diagnosed as ITP (idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura), a condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s platelets.

Because ITP often resolves on its own, the medical team and the Klimeks decided to monitor Kaleb’s condition to see if he was improving. He didn’t.

Another challenge

On his fifth birthday, Kaleb was hospitalized again with multiple nosebleeds, and his parents and medical team decided on a treatment plan that included platelet transfusions.

At the same time as Kaleb’s condition deteriorated, his parents welcomed a daughter, Alayna, into the family. In mid-December, Kaleb had a bone marrow biopsy, and on January 2, 2020, the family was diagnosed with AML, leukemia.

“In a matter of hours we went from being happy, living with two beautiful children, to being a parent’s worst nightmare,” Cassandra Klimek told a reporter for Alexandria Echo newspaper in April 2020.

The Klimeks’ experience with childhood cancer is typical: a combination of hope, fear, bad news, new treatments and financial pressure. It can be lonely, exhausting and scary. But for families like the Klimeks, there’s an organization that understands not only how daunting the journey to childhood cancer is, but how to help when it really matters.

Since 2003, Pinky Swear Foundation’s mission has been “to help children with cancer and their families with financial and emotional support” in honor of Mitch Chepokas. Mitch was 9 when he died of cancer, after asking his father to make a pledge to help other families who had a child with cancer.

Messy recording

September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Pinky Swear has set September 25 as the first annual one-day event to celebrate the #CancerIsMessy campaign. That day, visitors to the Mall of America in Bloomington can join in making a mess of slime in the TCF Bank Rotunda, and write letters of encouragement to children with cancer.

Those who prefer to make a mess at home with family and friends are invited to post a photo or video of that mess using the hashtag #CancerIsMessy, and ask others to join in with donations to help children with cancer.

The money raised from the annual scrap will be used to help children with cancer and their families, because a gift of the essentials at the right time can make a big difference to families like the Klimeks.

“I have no words to describe how grateful we were to have the enormous stressor of how we were going to make it financially removed so we could focus on taking care of our family,” said Cassandra Klimek. “We are so grateful for all the help we have received. I am happy to say that Kaleb is now doing great and only needs to be checked every few months.”

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