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Pingree school throws support behind student’s cancer fight

First grade teacher LaurProrok right explains how make tie-dye bandanas students as part Childhood Cancer Awareness Rally Cambridge Lakes Learning

First grade teacher Laura Prorok, right, explains how to make tie-dye bandanas to students as part of a Childhood Cancer Awareness Rally at Cambridge Lakes Learning Center in Pingree Grove. September 27, 2012. Ella Van Gheem, second from left, was diagnosed with Leukemia in August 2010. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 16, 2012 3:14PM

PINGREE GROVE — When Ella Van Gheem was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 4 years old, her parents were devastated.

“At first you think, ‘No, it’s not true.’ I kept thinking someone was going to tell me (the diagnosis) was wrong,” said Ella’s mom, Katie Van Gheem of Gilberts. “Then it’s, ‘Why us?’ and ‘What did I do?’ I didn’t know if there was something I could have done differently.”

To date, Ella, a student at Cambridge Lakes Learning Center in Pingree Grove, has had 800 days of chemotherapy. She has lost her hair twice, been in the emergency room countless times, and spent last Christmas in the hospital.

Though it’s been a battle, Ella hasn’t had to fight it alone.

Besides Katie, her dad, Steve, older brother, Josh, and other family and friends rallying for her, Ella has also been surrounded by love and support from the Cambridge Lakes Learning Center community.

In honor of September being Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, students participated in a rally Thursday in Ella’s honor, where they played games, created their own tie-dyed bandanas, and made and wore yellow ribbons to celebrate what the month is about.

“It’s so heartwarming to see the school pull together in support of Ella and all kids who have cancer,” Katie Van Gheem said.

She also lauds the staff, especially Ella’s teachers. “They’ve all been so great and so supportive,” she said.

Ella’s friends are glad to know her.

“We’re making the bandanas so we can support her,” Krish Patel, 7, said. “I’m glad she’s starting to feel better a little.”

“We’re going to try and fight for her and grow her hair back,” Lindsey O’Conner, 7, said. “She’s really pretty and sweet.”

Principal Bill Shuman praised the students and staff.

“It’s absolutely wonderful how they just come together,” he said.

For Ella, the hardest part of the disease has been the loss of her curly red hair, Katie Van Gheem said.

“It’s such an outward showing of what’s going on inside,” she said.

But she pointed out how well her daughter deals with the rounds of chemo she is given at home each night.

“She’ll say, ‘If have to do the stinky chemo, you have to smell my stinky feet,’” Katie Van Gheem said with a laugh. “So it’s our ritual every night. We smell her feet and she gets her chemo. She just handles it awesome. Ella is super strong.”

She also notes how Josh handles his little sister and her illness.

“God chose the best big brother for Ella,” Katie Van Gheem said. “He’s very patient with her. They don’t have the typical animosity some siblings have.”

The Van Gheem family is looking forward to a Disney Cruise in November, thanks to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Ella is excited about the limo that will escort them to the airport.

Doctors have given Ella a positive outlook, with a more than 80 percent chance that she will not relapse. Her last day of chemo is Oct. 28.

“We feel that we are the lucky ones,” Katie Van Gheem said.

Well-wishers can keep up with Ella by visiting the blog her parents started at

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