A cancer survivor for the past 20 years, Vandesompele shared her own journey with students from Sacred Heart Catholic School and Langton Public School, and members of the community, at the sixth Langton Relay for Life on Friday, May 11.
Twenty years ago, at the age of 9, Vandesompele was diagnosed with a childhood cancer - acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
Untreated, it can be fatal in a matter of weeks or months.
Vandesompele received treatment for two-and-a-half years, but it came with many side effects, she told the students, and sometimes hospitalization. She missed out on sports, and many times visiting friends.
Since being diagnosed in Grade 3 at Sacred Heart, she relapsed three times, and each time she beat cancer.
"It was a feat I could not accomplish on my own," Vandesompele told the students. "It took a lot of strength, courage, hope and prayer, a lot of which came from my family, friends, peers and the community. The Canadian Cancer Society, and events such as the Relay for Life, are very important to me, as are all of you. All of you should be proud of yourselves because you're helping in the fight against cancer.
"Each and every one of you gathered here today, you are all a beacon of hope for people battling cancer. Knowing that you care and are trying to help find a cure by holding fundraisers, such as today's event, to fund research and development, raise awareness for cancer research, encourage community support, and remind those fighting cancer that there is a light at the end of a sometimes dark and scary tunnel.
"With every step you take today, remember this... whether you are a survivor or know someone who has beat cancer, is fighting it now, or has lost their fight... Relay brings us all together. I believe that together we can help make cancer history.
"I am truly blessed, happy, and grateful to be able to share in this beautiful and emotional day. You are all my inspiration and driving force to never give up.
"And because of you," Vandesompele summed up, "I am a cancer survivor."
Friday morning at the 2018 Relay for Life in Langton, hosted by Langton Public School and Sacred Heart Catholic School, a fundraising amount of "almost $5,000" was announced by LPS principal Tracy Rodrigues.
But they were only getting started.
After opening ceremonies, which featured guest speaker Chantal Vandesompele and music by Aubrey Wood and Ray Pichette, students gathered around the Langton Lions Sports Park track for the Survivor Lap. Wearing their official yellow Relay for Life T-shirts, seven surivors completed one full lap before students and staff joined them on the track. Through the rest of the school day, students 'relayed' on the track in shifts, leading up to the afternoon closing ceremonies. Luminaries, another Relay for Life tradition, were set up in the Sacred Heart gymnasium.
As of Friday afternoon, their fundraising total rose to $7,225, with even more donations still coming in, bringing them to more than $72,000 raised for the Canadian Cancer Society since Langton's first Relay for Life in 2008.
It was a good day for Vandesompele, but also an emotional day for the 29-year-old who came back to her old elementary school as guest speaker and Survivor Lap participant.
"My last relapse was in 2010, and I've had a little bit more chemotherapy," said Vandesompele after completing the honorary lap. "Since then I've been going to college for Office Administration."
During that post-relapse time frame she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
"They think it's side-affects from my cancer and the medications I've received. It just kind of ballooned from there. The chemotherapy and the medications that they give to cancer patients is great. It helps. It does its job, it does what it's supposed to do. But there's so many side effects to that.
"So with an event like this, they are helping researchers develop new ways to treat patients that have less side effects. So people don't end up with as many health problems later on in life. So that's one of their goals as they work towards finding a cure."
Vandesompele, an ambassador and advocate for childhood cancer awareness, also participated in Langton's first Relay for Life in 2008, 10 years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Since that Relay, the Sacred Heart Catholic School grad went on to graduate from Holy Trinity High School, and began her post-secondary education in a nursing program.
"It was great. It was a great perspective from the 'other side' of the hospital bed, so to speak. I went through the program for a little while, then ended up leaving just because of how hard it got and how personal with my experience. Seeing other patients who were in the same boat, it was very emotional and difficult trying to separate that personal from professional. It was challenging for me."
She switched to a Social Services program and recently completed Office Administration, tying them together. She is currently looking for employment, and living in the Silver Hill area east of Langton.
"One way I'm trying to be proactive with my health is that I'm taking Tai Chi classes. It's just a whole mind, body, spirit connection and is actually beneficial for some of the side effects that I've developed. I developed problems in my joints, specifically my hip. Doing Tai Chi is supposed to help and I've found a lot of improvements so far."
2018 Relay for Life
"It does get emotional for me here, especially when you see one of the students from either one of the schools, someone who's very young, get diagnosed with cancer. I've even told my family that I would rather go through cancer again than someone else go through cancer for the first time. I know what to expect and I'd rather it be just kind of all be on me... if no one else would have to experience that."
It was also inspiring, she said, being surrounded by so many survivors.
"Seeing all of the survivors coming together, and to see that there are people who are surviving and beating cancer, that inspires me.
"That inspires me to continue to help and speak at these events and to encourage people, even the medical profession. A lot of times they treat patients but they don't see the 'after.' Sometimes they will treat a patient and the individual passes away and they don't win their fight against cancer. But they also don't always see five years after they treat a patient, that patient is still be alive, they are surviving.
"I always like going to visit the doctors at the hospital that treated me, just to let them know that I'm doing well, and show them that 'What you are doing... you are saving lives.' Not every single cancer patient succumbs to their disease, and they are doing something outstanding, miraculous, in my opinion. I think they lose sight of that, very often, because they don't see it."