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SALT LAKE CITY — Travis Hess is a man whose family has been ripped apart by cancer.
It started with his uncle, who died while Hess was still a toddler. A few years later, Hess' father died of the disease, and later, Hess' younger brother. By the time Hess reached adulthood, his grandmother had lost her husband and all four of her children to cancer.
Hess himself is no stranger to the disease. He has survived skin cancer seven times, as well as colon, brain and chest cancer. But it is his own children for whom his heart aches.
His daughter, Sydney, is Utah's youngest breast cancer survivor — she was diagnosed at the age of 12. Age 12 also brought Hess' son, Dallin, his own diagnosis: osteosarcoma, which ultimately led to his leg being amputated.
And another daughter, Alexis, who was 2 years old when she was diagnosed, and just one month away from her fourth when she passed away.
"She was such a sweet, sweet kid," Hess said, pointing to a picture of Alexis he keeps with him.
When Alexis died, Hess did not know how he and his wife would pay for her funeral, as the couple had no life insurance.
"We thought we would have to do something like have her cremated, or else not have an obituary," he said.
But thanks to a generous $1,000 gift from an anonymous donor, Alexis got the burial her parents wanted for her.
"I still don't know to this day who it was," he said. "I was very touched. I thought, ‘I'm sure we're not the only family going through this.'"
And he was right. Primary Children's told Hess the hospital sees multiple families a year who cannot afford a funeral and who have nowhere to turn.
So Hess started the Hess Cancer Foundation in hopes of helping families who have been torn apart by cancer and cannot afford to give a funeral to the loved ones they have lost.
"We spend an awful lot of money on research," he said. "But we need to also think about the people who lose the fight to cancer and lose a child because they need help, too."
So far, the foundation has helped 23 families, most of whom are from Utah. When Hess started, he thought his work would be finished after paying forward that $1,000 gift by helping one family. Now, he hopes to help 100 more.
The money he raises for his charity comes from competing in triathlons, a hobby he picked up years ago. Hess had previously started running while going through treatment for a tumor in his frontal lobe, but a friend suggested triathlons as an alternative. Two years later, Aquaphor offered to sponsor Hess — a relationship that continues today, despite Hess' continued battles with cancer.
He participated in the Ragnar relay earlier this month, after finishing chemotherapy in May. He did the same in 2010, and 2011. He has put countless hours into training, and is hoping to compete in the Ironman World Championship in October.
Letters of recommendation didn't help Hess, though, and he did not get chosen in the lottery. But another chance came when the World Triathlon Corporation decided to do a contest: two athletes would win an opportunity to compete in the championship, based on videos they made telling why they compete.
"I thought, ‘Man, this could be it,'" Hess said. "‘This could be my shot.'"
Hess later found out that he, Sydney, Dallin and Alexis all had Li- Fraumeni syndrome, which made them all more susceptible to cancer. He and his wife worked with a doctor to ensure their youngest child did not have the disorder.
So he made a video, telling the public about his experience with cancer and his goal to help others who are in similar situations. He is hoping that with enough votes, he will see his dream of competing in the Ironman World Championship become a reality.
"If we got this message out to the world, we could make such a difference to those families that need it," Hess said. "This is sacred money to me."
Hess told the story of a New York City woman his foundation helped.
"I believe in God, and I believe in life after death, but not everyone believes that, and it's even more challenging for them," he said. "This woman … to her, her son is gone forever. She'll never see him again."
"It's very difficult as a parent," he said. "You're hoping and praying and trying to do everything you can … when it's a little girl or a little boy, and they just want to feel better, you wish you could do something, but sometimes it's their time to go."
He wants to honor the children who have been lost to the disease, by helping their families honor them.
"I want to tell the whole world about these wonderful children," he said. "But I can't do it without help. I know I can do it. I know I can finish the race, just like I'll beat this cancer. The question is, ‘Can I get in?'"