SALT LAKE CITY — At 7 years old, Steele McKinney's parents had already decided it would be a "throwaway" year after learning their son had cancer that would require 50 chemotherapy treatments.
But, Steele had other plans.
"He changed that," father Chance McKinney said. "He refused to be the sick kid."
Between treatments, Steele suited up to play goalie in his team's soccer tournaments and later slept for almost 20 hours a day to recover.
"He's always said 'I don't like this, I'm not going to be this, I'm going to fight through this; I am going to get through this and conquer it.' And that's always been his attitude, and it's been an attitude that's kind of helped Chance and I through so many occasions," Steele's mother, Lisa McKinney, said.
"His strength has been pretty remarkable," she added. "He's a little warrior, that's for sure."
Steele is now 8 years old and recently finished his chemo treatments in September. He is now looking forward to a new mission: shattering the world record for the longest virtual high-five train ever completed. The campaign was created to celebrate the five-year anniversary of 5 For The Fight, a nonprofit focused on raising funds for cancer research.
When asked how Steele felt about launching off a potentially record-shattering endeavor, he replied: "I don't hate it." His parents confirmed he was pretty excited about it, too.
The nonprofit works to raise money and help other children, like Steele, through cancer research. It has raised $26 million since its founding and encourages anyone across the world to donate just $5 to the fight to end cancer. Proceeds go toward cancer research.
Ryan Smith, co-founder and executive chairman of the tech-giant Qualtrics, co-founded the mission in 2016 to make donating to cancer research more accessible to the everyday person, rather than focusing on large donations. For the entire month of March, Qualtrics will match every donation on a 5-to-1 ratio, up to $1 million.
"It actually means the world to us," Lisa McKinney said. "There's so many people with cancer, let alone children — things they go through that no human being should have to suffer through, let alone kids."
Lori Kun, head of social impact at Qualtrics, said many cancer patients have been even more isolated during the pandemic. She said the high-fives could help everyone feel included, all while hopefully raising funds for the mission.
"We wanted to take a moment to send some love and light out into the world and do something huge," she explained.
The current record for the longest virtual high-five chain is a little over 5,000 people, and 5 For The Fight aims to shatter the record with a goal of 10,000 — although Steele's ambitions might be a little higher.
The competitive young boy scoffed at the 10,000 goal and said he felt they could easily get way more. Officially, the goal is 10,000. But unofficially, for Steele, he hopes to see up to 15,000 or even higher.
Steele kicked off the campaign Monday morning and hopes no one leaves him hanging.
"To know that there could one day be a cure or treatments that may not be so brutal for their bodies to go through would mean the world to us, so to be a part of part of something like that is pretty special," Lisa McKinney said. "Anything that can help people suffer less would be remarkable, and amazing for us."
Kun said she hopes to see the campaign not only break the world record but bring attention to the nonprofit's mission and raise even more money.
"Who doesn't have $5 to give to help a kid," Lisa McKinney said.
To participate in the high-five train, visit the 5 For the Fight website.
Even through all the health issues, Steele never let his sense of humor escape him. Because of his treatments, Steele had to wear a medical mask, similar to those mandated during the COVID-19 pandemic, months before March 2020.
When a curious friend asked Steele how he could have predicted this, he simply replied: "I'm a genius," his dad recalled.
Even though Steele completed his year-long chemotherapy treatments, they aren't out of the woods yet.
The young boy was first diagnosed with a brain tumor on the pituitary stalk, which was removed through brain surgery. A biopsy later found that Steele had Langerhans cell histiocytosis, or LCH, a very rare cancer that can remain in a person's body even after treatment, Lisa McKinney explained. Doctors gave the family a choice when he was diagnosed: do the chemotherapy now or risk finding out in several years the cancer had progressed past the point of intervention.
"His type of cancer we're told is always in his body, it's just a matter of trying to keep it down enough to keep neurodegeneration from happening," she explained. "And so that was the purpose of the chemotherapy. We may not know for sure if it's completely 100% successful for 5 to 10 years since once LCH shows up, it can take that long for nerve degeneration to happen. So, we're keeping our fingers crossed that this was successful."
Because the cancer will always be in his body, Steele and his family have to remain vigilant for signs the cancer has come back. Steele has to undergo regular MRI to make sure there are no new growths in his body.
"It's that scary that those dangers are never far from our minds," Lisa McKinney said. "It's something that are constantly on our minds and we're constantly watching."
Only about one child out of 200,000 develop LCH each year, according to St. Jude's Hospital and the disease carries a high survival rate. Cancer research is especially crucial when fighting a rare case, Lisa McKinney said.
"Having those funds to be able to come up with ways on how to beat this thing is so critical," she said. "It is really crucial for Steele that research continues to go on, especially for the rare cancers — for all cancers in general there's so little — because he's got such a rare cancer there's very little research, it's very hard to find information about cases."
Spending months in Primary Children's Hospital gave the McKinneys a new outlook on what other families are going through, too.
"Cancer is such a diverse thing," Chance McKinney said, noting that many other families getting treatment at the hospital had a worse prognosis than Steele.