In 2003 at the age of 18, only barely still considered a child by medical standards, Amy Speck-Kern was diagnosed with Acute Myleoid Leukemia. Known by the acronym AML, this childhood cancer attacks multiple blood cell types, including red blood cells, platelet-forming cells, and white blood cells other than lymphocytes (when leukemia attacks lymphocytes, it is known as acute lymphoblasic leukemia, or ALL). AML represents only 20% of leukemia diagnoses, so Amy and her doctors realized it would be a challenge to successfully defeat the disease.
“They told us they couldn’t guarantee her next month, next week, or even tomorrow,” says Liz Mikutowski, Amy’s mother. With high school graduation quickly approaching, Amy went onto the course of treatment, a newly devised protocol from the Children’s Oncology Group, for which she was one of the first patients. Previous treatments had a 60% survivor rate for AML, and around the time of Amy’s diagnosis, the survival rate experienced a surge up to 90% thanks to advanced research and development into cures for childhood cancer. The new protocol for Amy featured these advancements, and coupled with diet, exercise and the support of family and childhood cancer organizations, she completed the treatment at an accelerated rate. After only 6 months, Amy was cleared of AML, thanks to the tireless work of children’s oncologists, doctors, nurses, and the generous funding, grants, and donations that made the research possible.
“I know that I’m here because of the research,” said Speck-Kern. “The disease and course of treatment inspired me to pursue my passion, and find a way to give back to the cause that has made it possible.” Her passion can be found in the saddle, astride thousand-pound dressage horses she teaches to move and dance in tandem with their riders. Now a professional FEI dressage trainer in Loxahatchee, Florida, she rides, trains, shows, and competes on Wellington’s prestigious international show circuit. After learning from and working with some of the best trainers in the industry, Amy founded Excel Dressage and, leading into the winter show season, continues her mission to give back to childhood cancer research and outreach programs.
Through partnerships with organizations like the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and the Kids Cancer Foundation of South Florida, Amy hopes to raise awareness and funding for the imperative research necessary to one day conquer childhood cancers. In addition, these programs offer invaluable outreach, support, and resources to children going through treatment, as well as their siblings and families. “Most people don’t realize that treatment is only one step, and normally the only one covered by health insurance,” said Speck-Kern. “Education, support, and resources like psychologists and the camaraderie of other children who are experiencing the same reality are priceless and can make all the difference in the world to these kids.”
As an accomplished dressage rider, Amy is hoping to use her knowledge and expertise in the industry to introduce the equestrian community to the plight of childhood cancer patients. From piaffe-passage clinics whose proceeds will benefit ongoing research and development, to inviting local children and families to watch the spectacular dressage and show jumping extravaganzas hosted by the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, Amy believes it is her duty to pay it forward by contributing to the ongoing need for research that saved her life and hopefully by making a difference in the lives of children diagnosed with the disease.
Amy is a Kids Cancer Foundation Ambassador.
The Kids Cancer Foundation of South Florida is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity that provides hope and support to local children and families battling childhood cancer. Their multifaceted program addresses patient family needs that range from financial assistance to psychological support and art programs, designed to ease the mental, financial, and emotional strain of battling childhood cancer for the entire family. Some of their support services and programs include:
- Over $400,000 in financial assistance
- Donations of over $200,000 in toys and gifts
- Treasure Boxes filled year round at hospitals and doctors offices
- Pediatric Oncology Patient Care Navigator Program to provide education and support to patients and families
- Arts and Health Program designed for patients and siblings, including therapeutic arts and crafts, play interactions, visual imagery and distraction techniques
- Gift Card Program which enables families to purchase basic necessities like food, clothing and gas to come to and from treatment
- Tutoring and Homework Club for patients and siblings, as well as an Educational Advocacy program to assist patients with school re-entry
- Family Socials
- Portable Play Carts
- Legacy Bead Program, where patients collect colorful beads that represent their journey through treatment
To date the Kids Cancer Foundation has helped over 500 patients and families and celebrated numerous End of Treatment Parties.