NORWOOD PARK — The stories of Norwood Park's Leah Anderson and Beverly's John McNicholas are remarkably sad and similar.
Leah was a giggly 6-year-old kindergarten student at Onahan School when she was diagnosed with a rare brain stem tumor on Dec. 21, 2011. She would die less than a year later, on Dec. 12, 2012, at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago in Streeterville.
John had just played first base in a baseball game as a St. Rita High School freshman the day before he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor on March 31, 2010. The 15-year-old died 10 months later at Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park, Lurie's former home.
"You go from this healthy kid to a kid who's basically going to die," said John's mother, Amy McNicholas. "It doesn't register that there's nothing in this day and age that could be done to help him."
Justin Breen says the parents may be from vastly different neighborhoods, but are teaming up to honor their kids:
McNicholas and Leah's mom, Shannon Anderson, hope to change that by joining their respective foundations under the current "Live Like John" organization, which has raised about $680,000 for brain cancer research since it was established by McNicholas on July 28, 2011. Leah's foundation will be named "Live Like Leah" and placed under the "Live Like John" umbrella.
"This is what we have to do to make an impact — is we need to have more collaboration," Anderson said Sunday night, one of the final days of September's National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. "We've been tossing around the idea for some time, about how much stronger we would be if we combined together."
Anderson and McNicholas met in January 2013 at a function for bereaved mothers. Both said they had an "instant connection" and wanted to help future families of children affected by brain tumors.
"As soon as you become part of this club you’ve never wanted to be a part of, you have these women that you have this connection in terms of a loss," said McNicholas, a Back of the Yards native. "With Shannon, it's kind of a gift to find somebody where you have commonalities in terms of comfort, plus it’s someone you really, really like."
Anderson, whose husband Mike is a Chicago police officer, believes "Live Like Leah" can bring similar events and committees to the North Side as "Live Like John" has created on the South Side. That includes a Turkey Trot, a softball tournament, a board of directors and a student Service Leadership Institute. "Live Like John" already has all of those, including the student-run group, which includes high schoolers from Marist, Mount Carmel, St. Rita, St. Ignatius, Brother Rice and Mother McAuley.
"My daughter's cancer diagnosis and death rocked my world," Anderson said. "But I go on and live each day in her honor and try to live the life that I know she would want me to. I really feel there is no other option."
Said McNicholas: "Together, we’re really going to build a legacy of hope."
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