Childhood cancer community, GCU team up at run
By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau
Childhood cancer is on the run from scientists working round-the-clock to crack its insidious code, but there was no place for the devastating disease to hide Saturday on Grand Canyon University’s Phoenix campus.
The fifth annual GCU Foundation Run to Fight Children’s Cancer drew nearly 3,500 people, hundreds of whom donned T-shirts proclaiming love and support for individual kids battling cancer and proudly wore them in the 10K, 5K and cancer survivors’ walk. It was all about kicking cancer to the curb.
But sadly, there was no shortage of teams named for the wee warriors:
Team Ashton — Team Jonah — Team Yasmeen — Team Olivia — Team Jared — Team Colin — Team Mia — Team Hailey Madison — Team Turtle
And on and on.
“We have to finish this job that we started a number of years ago,” Dr. Robert Arceci, medical director of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said to a buoyant crowd at the event. “As we always say, ‘Cancer sucks,’ and we’ve got to fix it.”
The run raises awareness of pediatric cancer, the leading cause of death by disease among children ages 14 and younger, funds research into promising new diagnostic tools and treatments, and supports cancer patients and their families. In its first four years, the event raised nearly $300,000 for PCH and Children’s Cancer Network.
On Saturday, under a brilliant spring sky and with ideal sprinting conditions, a potpourri of participants arrived: stroller-contained toddlers, super-fit runners and senior citizens holding hands. But one very important person was missing: Mia Bryant, the 7-year-old race starter who had chemotherapy this week at PCH and was too ill to leave the hospital. (To read about Mia, click here.)
In Mia’s place, her brothers Jimmy, 11, and Jacob, 6, waved to the runners, then blew an air horn to get them started. Later, the boys joined race coordinator Sussely Morales for a Jumbrotron viewing of a GCU Today video about their sister’s battle.
Jimmy Bryant, Mia’s father, said the Chandler second-grader was so disappointed. “She cried,” he said. “It seems like we’ve been so busy with the run for the past month, and we’ve had such a good time doing it. It was such a let-down when the doctors came in and told us.”
There was plenty of inspiration to go around Saturday:
Derek Taylor has been down the cancer road five times — twice with his grandfathers, once with his dad, who died of a rare kidney cancer at age 37, once with his wife, who had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2007, and now with his young son, diagnosed in November with leukemia.
“My poor husband is the strongest person I know,” said Tessa Taylor, Derek’s wife. “He’s a rock.”
The Taylors, including 4-year-old Ayden, his sister, Bailee, 15, and his brother, Cameron, 13, visited GCU for the first time Saturday. Friends put together a fundraising team for the Taylors, who live in Pine, Ariz., and about 35 people showed up.
Last October, Ayden developed odd virus-like symptoms — a cough, on-and-off-fever and, oddly, a change in his voice — as well as swollen lymph nodes. Doctors at a hospital in nearby Payson initially chalked it up to tonsillitis, but Tessa wasn’t satisfied. She pushed for a blood test, and the results necessitated an immediate 80-minute ambulance ride for Ayden and Derek to Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
“I just knew he wasn’t OK,” Tessa said.
Tests revealed that a mass the size of the boy’s fist was pressing down on his heart and had nudged aside his esophagus (which accounted for his voice change). He was diagnosed with leukemia on Nov. 1 and began chemotherapy. The family still travels weekly from their home to the Valley for Ayden’s spinal taps and treatments, and he won’t be chemo-free for 3-1/2 more years.
Ayden, who carries around a little bowl in case he gets sick to his stomach from his cancer-killing medicine, is bouncing back. The experience has revealed to Tessa an inner strength she didn’t know she had.
“I’m a crier,” she said. “But I turned into this Mom beast — I’m the Mama bear — and I listen and write things down, and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize my son. I feel like I could be an oncologist.”
Alyssa Alvarez of Gilbert is too young to know why she was sporting a tiny gold survivors’ cape and riding in the arms of her father, Alex, during an emotional cancer survivors’ walk Saturday. Alyssa, whose first birthday is Tuesday, was diagnosed with rare, inoperable optic glioma — a tumor pressing on her optic nerve — when she was 3 months old.
The smiley tot’s last scan showed no growth in her tumor, and her family, including mom, Stephanie, and big sister, Audrey, are guardedly optimistic.
“We’re trying not to look that far forward,” Alvarez said.
On the day he turned 36, last Nov. 3, Krys VanSlyke’s year-old son started treatments for aggressive neuroblastoma. “A friend told me to think about it this way: `Your birthday is the day your son started to beat cancer,’” VanSlyke said.
The toddler’s name is Atticus — “Gussy” to his big sisters Olivia, 7, and Iris, 6. His mom, Melissa, is expecting to give birth to his younger brother later this month. It has been a chaotic time for all, punctuated by six rounds of chemotherapy, a bone-marrow transplant and surgeries on a cancerous tumor.
Team Atticus Roars, named for the tiny growl Atticus made when, as VanSlyke was taking a photo of the boy on his first day of chemotherapy, father asked son what sound a tiger makes, attended Saturday’s run. The team stepped in for the family, which was at PCH where Atticus is recovering from surgery.
“Overall, we’re doing OK,” VanSlyke said. “His sisters ask hard questions. The younger of the two, who is not easily fleeced, asked whether ‘her Gussy’ is going to die, and it’s hard to know when to be an educator and when to be a mom and dad.”
Atticus is responding well to treatment, and VanSlyke has settled into a way of functioning. “A friend said, ‘You can’t pray for your daily bread and worry about what’s going to happen a year from now. You can’t have it both ways,’” he said. “People in recovery have it right — one day at a time.”
Among the event’s 300 volunteers was GCU senior Alexa Topper, who rolled out of bed in her campus dorm room shortly before 6 a.m. The nursing student handed out hundreds of medals and water bottles at the finish line, which was crossed by runners in pink knee-highs, tie-dyed bandanas, sparkly tutus and powder-blue angel wings.
“This is definitely an eye-opener to see how many people came together, and to learn that kids who are so young are being diagnosed,” Topper said. “I can’t even fathom that.”
When it was time to say goodbye to her son, after two years of chemotherapy treatments and four surgeries to cut tumors from his lungs and remove a cancerous bone from his right leg had failed, Tracy Floyd threw a farewell party that was “out of this world.” Nick surfed in Hawaii, got wheeled around his neighborhood on a stretcher by former Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson and stayed strong for the dozens of people dropping by his house.
Some of those same people represented him well at Saturday’s run.
“It’s really touching,” said Tracy, who lost her middle child to osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, on Dec. 30. Nick was 16.
Tracy and her husband, Al, stopped at nothing to save their son, including a trip to a children’s cancer hospital in Houston, which confirmed what Phoenix doctors had told them: Nothing else could be done for the teenager. They brought him home to die in September.
“He was not feeling good, but he plugged through it like a rock star,” she said. “He had all his Christmas shopping done by November. He was planning for his death, and he knew it was coming even though we never told him he was dying. We told him he was fighting.”
Seven days before he died, Nick asked a girl on whom he’d had a crush forever “out” on a date. She came over to the house to watch movies and rushed to his home in the middle of the night as he was dying.
During the two months since, Tracy has tried to keep living, taking classes, staying busy and continuing to make the most of her time with her other sons, Andrew, 17, and Trenton, 15.
“At first, my entire life was flat-lined, but I’ve got a strong support system,” she said. “And I have such a strong grasp that we are not here forever, that the time you have here you need to live like you’re dying.”
In the category, “You don’t see this every day:”
Adam Folts, in stars-and-stripes runners’ shorts, was among 494 registered runners in the 10K. The 28-year-old Phoenix resident won the race in 36:14, then sprinted to a Children’s Cancer Network booth, where supporter Paul Lavin gave him a gold CCN T-shirt to put on. Folts did so, then dashed back to the starting line and ran the 5K, with 1,904 other registered participants. He also finished first in that race in 16:41.
“It’s an awesome thing, running for a cause,” said Folts, who won last year’s 10K, too, in 33:27.
Claiming victory among women in the 10K was Tricia Schafer of Phoenix (42:24), while Shayna Weir (20:07) of Litchfield Park took the 5K (and also won last year’s in 19:25).
Rhonda Wrenn, an enrollment counselor for the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, assembled a team of nearly two dozen other enrollment representatives and student service advisors from GCU’s Peoria office. The daughter of one of Wrenn’s students in the RN-to-BSN program is battling cancer.
“It’s hard to imagine the devastation that comes from a cancer diagnosis and everything you need to go through as a parent just to see if the child is going to make it,” Wrenn said. “My student has had to change jobs — she has two on-call jobs — so she can be available to take her daughter to therapy.”
She thought forming a team would be a good way to share a physical activity with her co-workers, but the main motivation was to do something to fight childhood cancer. “We may not be able to save a child or cure them, but we are right here, right now, and we can fight this awful disease,” Wrenn said.
Among the thousands of participants in Saturday’s run were Daniel Lopez’s kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade teachers, in addition to several others who knew and loved the Peoria boy. Daniel died three years ago after a valiant fight (six surgeries and 62 radiation, chemotherapy and experimental treatments) against an aggressive form of cancer in his brain stem. He was 7.
“It ripped a piece of our hearts out,” Deni Gaines, Daniel’s first-grade teacher at Cotton Boll Elementary in Peoria, said of his death. “To have known a child so well, to feel so connected and then to lose him was very devastating.”
Daniel was funny and determined, but fragile towards the end of his first-grade year, said Gaines, who also cared for Daniel and his older brother, Alex, at her home after school right up to the month of his death. Hoping and praying for a miracle, she and others walked for him at GCU’s second Run to Fight Children’s Cancer on March 10, 2012. Daniel died 12 days later.
“Fundraisers like this are so important,” Gaines said. “I know how little money goes toward childhood cancer research, and I feel like the loss for these parents and families is huge.”
You couldn’t miss the hot pink T-shirts worn Saturday by about 30 members of “Kin Can Kick It,” a team formed by the family and friends of McKindree “Kin” Patton, 17, of Gilbert. Kin was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, Diamond Blackfan Anemia, five years ago and has endured thousands of blood transfusions, said her dad, Jye.
Kin’s best hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant, which she had at PCH in August. She was hospitalized for seven months until her release Friday, and her mom, Aimee, was there every night.
“Cancer definitely changes your focus in life,” Patton said. “It puts things into perspective fast.”
Mia Foutz’s T-shirt should declare her “Tenacious with a T.” Last year, the then 8-year-old made plenty of folks lining the survivors’ walkway weep by taking a few steps with the help of her tutu-decorated walker. On Saturday, Mia, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor four years ago, walked the entire quarter-mile with her walker and her mom, Sandra.
The girl with the pink sunglasses and golden hair, partly braided and threaded with sparkly ribbons, has been at several of GCU’s cancer runs, progressing from medical stroller to wheelchair to wagon to walker.
“What will she do next year? Use a cane? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out,” her mom said.
Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.