Kennedy Cobble has beaten cancer not once, not twice, not even three times. The 24-year-old, originally diagnosed with osteosarcoma, has been diagnosed with cancer on four separate occasions in her life and fought off the disease each time.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is the last time.’ ” Cobble tells PEOPLE. “But then something else kept happening. I had to focus not on the negative possibilities of the outcome of my cancer, but on pushing through.”
And now the resilient Suwanee, Georgia, resident is living her life to the fullest. Cobble is a University of North Georgia junior studying to become a teacher; she drives a modified hand-controlled car to a part-time gig teaching local elementary school kids; and she’s an advocate and spokesperson for CURE Childhood Cancer, a nonprofit that raises money for critical pediatric cancer research and patient and family support.
“This world has given me so many second chances and now it’s my turn to give back,” explains Cobble. “For so much of my life, everything was focused on me and my cancer and my recovery – and I’m grateful – but now it’s my turn to help other people.
“This disease doesn’t define me.”
Doctors diagnosed Cobble with the rare bone cancer at the age of 14 – she had been complaining of leg pain for months and an MRI revealed a big mass the size of a grapefruit on her tailbone.
“At the time, I didn’t understand what was going on, but everyone around me was so upset,” she says. “I thought I’d go through treatments and life would go back to normal. It took me awhile to realize that wasn’t the case. I realized life would never be normal again when they told me I wouldn’t walk again.”
She went through seven weeks of radiation and nine months of chemotherapy before having part of her spine, sacrum and pelvis removed and replaced with titanium rods, screws and bolts.
And the then teenager’s battle was only beginning.
Cobble’s doctor, Bradley George, says it is “quite difficult” for kids and teens to overcome osteosarcoma – especially when it metastasizes.
“About 25 percent of the kids’ [cancer] will recur,” George, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, tells PEOPLE. “Kennedy has had a lot of complications. She really is a remarkable young woman and a fighter.”
In August 2007, Cobble’s cancer spread to her right lung, which she had partially removed, but three months later, it spread to her pulmonary artery. Doctors removed her entire lung.
For two years, Cobble underwent surgeries to revise broken spinal rods and to remove her sacrum. When her cancer spread once again, this time to her leg, doctors removed her knee, tibia and femur and replaced them with titanium rods.
“Once you have long recurrence, it becomes harder and harder to get rid of the tumor,” explains George. “A lot of kids would have given up because unfortunately statistics show that most kids don’t survive, but Kennedy always wanted to try new things and push herself.
“She was hell-bent on surviving.”
Cobble now walks with a cane (and sometimes a wheelchair), but she isn’t letting cancer tell her what she can and cannot do.
“I’m inhibited, sure, I can’t run fast or walk, but I love kids and art and I’m using that passion to better my community,” she explains. “I’m going to be a teacher one day.”
Jacquie Parker, Cobble’s supervising teacher at Lyman Hall Elementary, says her mentee is an “absolute role model to her students.”
“Who better to give a pep talk about perseverance?” Parker tells PEOPLE. “Students see she has not let the disease keep her from doing what she wants to do in life – teach.
“The lives she touches as a teacher may very well be the future researchers who help cure cancer.”