Mikayla Rietgraf of Huxley is enjoying her first year of college at the University of Northern Iowa. She is making plans for her future and thanking God every day that she is able to follow her heart.

You see, several years ago, it was touch and go with Mikayla. In fact, an entirely different journey began for this now enthusiastic college freshman. At the age of 8, she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and was given only a 20 percent chance of survival.

But survive she did. It wasn’t easy and it sure wasn’t fun for the entire family, but Mikayla’s journey is one of hope, faith, family and fight.

Her parents, Marty and Deanna Rietgraf, along with her siblings, are all survivors. Mikayla, now 18, had a pretty rough first 10 years of her life.

“Mikayla’s cancer journey was the hardest experience we have ever endured,” commented Deanna. “With stage IV cancer and only a 20 percent chance to live past eight years old, the toll on our entire family was huge. We continually had to make a decision to keep on fighting through each round of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, because watching Mikayla in pain through all the side effects would literally break our hearts.”

Mikayla talks about being eight years old and facing cancer.

“I was eight years old when I was diagnosed with stage IV Ewing’s sarcoma cancer,” she tells. “My treatment consisted of 14 rounds of chemotherapy, proton radiation to my hip and regular radiation to my lungs.”

When her dad told her she had cancer, she tells that she put her head under her blanket and cried.

“I honestly was pretty naïve,” she explains. “I didn’t really know that I had such a high chance of dying, but what I did know was that it meant I would have to be in a lot of pain. I can’t even imagine how much worse my mental state would have been if I thought death was even an option.”

Deanna admitted that as parents, they had to follow Mikayla’s lead.

“She was strong, motivated, playful and just wanted to live, so we would do whatever we could to make her comfortable, be strong for her and pray continually for her,” she told.

Mikayla’s three brothers played instrumental parts in her treatments.

“A lot of my strength came from my family,” said Mikayla. “They were the backbone in my entire cancer experience. All I knew was that I needed chemo and I would get sick, and they always helped keep me distracted and just loved me the best they could, even if I was being a snot. My brothers were so important to me. I remember every visit they made while I was in the hospital, and just thinking about how much they sacrificed for me kind of makes me tear up. I don’t think they will ever understand the impact of every little thing that they did for me. Every little sister looks up to her big brothers, but for me it was so much more impactful because I knew I was stealing mom and dad’s attention away — their friend time and their education away — but they took the sacrifice with smiles and loved me so much.”

Deanna agreed that Mikayla’s brothers played a significant part in her treatment and recovery.

“Our three sons are also survivors,” said Deanna. These three young men went through what no adult can figure out how to go through, but with strength of character, kindness and vulnerability. They helped us when she was very sick with side effects, they played countless games when she was feeling OK, they made her laugh when she needed to and they shared with my husband and I their fears as they processed that she could quite possibly die from cancer. To think that they were 17, 15 and 13 is overwhelming as we look back at how they worked through their personal journeys with her diagnosis.”

Mikayla tells that a lot of her fears came after her treatments. She said that she thought that everything would be better once she got through her treatments.

“I wasn’t ever scared of treatment, I just hated the thought of having to go back to the hospital. It was after treatment that I got very worried that my cancer would come back and the later term side effects that would eventually come with my chemotherapy and radiation,” she said.

Moving off to college, getting into a routine and enjoying life keeps Mikayla busy and happy.

“I love my classes, so I am super fortunate for that,” she remarks. “One of my passions is working out and staying fit — because of this I am in the process of becoming a personal trainer and hopefully to be hired here at UNI. I spend a lot of time at the Wellness and Recreation Center. I am also involved in two on-campus ministries that I love. My main goal is to be able to help people when I graduate.”

Being a cancer survivor can turn a person’s world around, making you appreciate every day and looking at the world differently.

“I have done so much differently in my life now,” she said. “I feel like every day I get to live is an extra day, and because of that, I try to make everyone I come in contact with be more joyful than they were. The motto I like to think about every day is “Today I Choose Joy.”

Mikayla and her family have been busy raising money for pediatric cancer.

“My family and I have raised over $35,000 for pediatric cancer and I have done a lot of volunteering with childhood cancer organizations,” commented Mikayla. “I really love to give back to the organizations that helped me through my treatment.”

A couple of very important people have earned the titles of ‘Hero’ in Mikayla’s life.

“My heroes are my parents,” she explains. “I love them and I want to be just like them. They are the reason I was so courageous and they always made me laugh and love life. They are the strongest, most hard-working, loving and selfless people that I know. I hope that someday I can be as amazing as they are. They have taught me so much and I am so thankful that I can have my heroes be my parents.”

“Mikayla loves life, lives it full on, cares for people — all by using the experience that she has had, and looks forward to caring for children in crisis in her future,” commented Deanna.

Her advice for those just beginning a similar journey is pretty straightforward.

“What I learned from my cancer journey, and I would share with others facing it, would be to try to stay positive, stay busy and reach out for help,” she commented.

Going forward, she shares a couple goals in her life:

“Well, my main goal in life is to bring glory to God and share Him with everyone. More short-term goals are to graduate college and hopefully get a job where I can work overseas with orphans and children. I want to help people see the joy in life.”