Fierce & Fearless: Anna’s Story | Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

At 15 years old, fierce and fearless, Anna is conquering her cancer diagnosis with resilience, grace, humor and faith. Livestrong honors Anna’s journey during September, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

By Paula Wielinski, BSN RN

Anna, childhood stage 3 ovarian cancer survivor

Fast and Furious

Prior to May 2023, Anna’s moments were consumed by basketball and schoolwork, but that all changed with she was diagnosed with cancer right before her sophomore year ended and summer was just beginning. “Our world was turned upside down in May when our daughter Anna was diagnosed with childhood stage 3 ovarian cancer,” said Shannon, Anna’s mother. “But after an intense summer of treatment including surgeries, chemotherapy and hospitalizations, we are so happy to share that her cancer is in remission.”

Shannon quickly went into high gear and dropped everything to not only care for Anna, but to build a support network around her. She searched for inspiration, support and opportunities for connection for Anna, who was unfortunately isolated from her peers during what should have been a normal fun-filled summer.

Anna shaving Dad’s head in solidarity

During Anna’s treatment, Shannon created a motto to guide her family, friends and supporters:

Beat cancer.
Fearless era.
Strong and courageous.

Shannon explains the meaning behind the motto:

Beat Cancer

“We knew from the beginning that there was a very good prognosis, but that the summer was going to be hard. Remembering this kept us focused on the primary goal.”

Fearless Era

“Anna is a big ‘Swiftie’ and we had just gone to the Taylor Swift concert in Houston the month before her diagnosis. Taylor Swift has a song and album called Fearless, so we thought — this is our Fearless Era!

Anna in her Fearless Era hat and Taylor Swift shirt

Strong and Courageous

Even before Anna’s cancer diagnosis, the family has been rooted in their Christian faith. They are members of St Michael’s Episcopal Church in Austin and have leaned on their faith community to help them through Anna’s cancer journey.

“This scripture has always been a source of empowerment and has special meaning to our family and to Anna, which is why this really became the foundation of our rallying cry to support Anna,” remarked Shannon.

“Have I not commanded you?
Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged,
For God will be with you wherever you go.”
-Joshua 1:9
Team Anna’s motto on display

Forming Team Anna: Giving Back

Family and friends were eager to contribute their time, energy, and money in support of Anna. Shannon identified Livestrong as an inspiration and helpful part of Anna’s survivor story. “Livestrong is on every plaque at the children’s hospital for supporting wings. They are a vetted organization that people trust to support cancer survivors and their families,” Shannon explains. “So it was a natural fit for us to support Livestrong, to get plugged into their community of survivors and to lean into the Livestrong Challenge in a big way, especially since it is in our own backyard.”

The Livestrong Challenge, held each fall in Austin, is the organization’s premier fundraising event and engages thousands of cancer survivors and their families in a run, walk, or ride event to connect cancer survivors and support Livestrong programs and services.

“We are so blessed to call Austin home. In addition to Livestrong being headquartered here, having access to Dell Children’s Medical Center is a tremendous benefit. Our city has grown exponentially and 20 years ago this hospital, the staff and the many resources that we have benefited from didn’t exist yet. We were thrilled to form Team Anna and to participate in the Challenge to raise much-needed funding for cancer survivors.”

Team Anna at the 2023 Livestrong Challenge

Over 1,800 participants turned out on Sunday, September 10, 2023 for the 27th annual Livestrong Challenge ride, run, and walk on a warm, sunny day at Austin’s Auditorium Shores, raising over $400,000. Team Anna had one of the biggest and most enthusiastic teams and was comprised of 55 people, raising nearly $16,000! And the team could be seen proudly sporting baseball caps with the phrase “Fearless Era.”

“It is an honor to be alongside everyone going through their cancer journey. It was overwhelming to see the support we received. Anna didn’t wear a wig, just her bald head, and people were stopping her to tell her she was beautiful and incredible and strong. She signed her name on the Survivor Wall and I was surprised at how much that moved me — that she sort of had this community of survivors who had also been there.”

“I am a Survivor” signature wall at the Livestrong Challenge

On the other side: Helping Others

Anna isn’t old enough to volunteer at the children’s hospital that provided her treatment, but that only empowered her to get creative in finding other ways to impact the lives of children with cancer. Anna spearheaded a cancer club at her school with an emphasis on compassion, communication, and empathy. Anna explains, “It’s for anyone with cancer and their family and friends.” One goal of the club is to create opportunities for her peers to get involved with nonprofits that serve the cancer community.

In addition to the money raised for Livestrong, she has raised money to donate items to organizations providing gift baskets to children in treatment, organized students to participate in cancer research and awareness fundraising walks and helped support the needs and wish lists of the hematology and oncology floor patients at Dell Children’s Medical Center. Anna has always known she wanted to be a doctor, and her cancer journey solidified her focus on pursuing anesthesiology.

Anna ringing the bell after treatment with nurse Taylor and Dr. Shannon Cohn

Cancer is a disease that interrupts the life of anyone it touches — especially a teenager hoping to live a normal life. For Anna, having this diagnosis that her peers couldn’t relate to was isolating. “She said often that having chemo as a teenager was really lonely, and that was part of why TikTok became such a place for her to create connections with other kids who had experienced cancer diagnoses,” said Shannon.

Anna explains her diagnosis in a TikTok video

Some of the videos Anna made went viral. Anna explains, “I made a joke out of me having cancer. It was a humor thing.” But Anna’s videos touched other cancer patients. One of her followers shared that the videos make her little brother, battling lymphoma, laugh. She has also kept in touch with other teens with cancer whom she met through her videos. In one video, Anna describes her mother as her biggest supporter — a fact that is evident to anyone who has an opportunity to meet Shannon.

Anna and Shannon

Shannon proclaims, “The idea that someone is funding awareness and advocacy — that matters! I understand that now in a new light. The combination of chemotherapy that cured Anna didn’t exist in the 1970s. Imagine the advances in the next 50 years!”

Team Anna plans to return to walk and run in the Livestrong Challenge in the fall of 2024.

About Livestrong

Founded in 1997 with the purpose of finding solutions to the most overlooked problems in cancer care, Livestrong has invested more than $612 million in more than 615 cancer programs and initiatives; served and supported more than 10.9 million people; helping save them more than $98.7 million in healthcare related costs; and have pledged $50 million to the Livestrong Cancer Institutes at the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

Fierce & Fearless: Anna’s Story | Childhood Cancer Awareness Month was originally published in Livestrong Voices on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.