By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Oftentimes, the hardest battles fought are the ones fought by the youngest warriors of them all.
Steve Luttrell and his wife, Patti, a former Grand Canyon University College of Nursing and Health Care Professions faculty member, know the truth of that struggle firsthand.
Their son, Jeff, was just 5 years old – and in his second day of kindergarten – when he was diagnosed with leukemia.
He conquered that hard-won battle.
Again and again.
He endured a painful bone-marrow transplant in seventh grade and has fought bouts of secondary mouth cancer.
“He had a journey tougher than most kids. He’s had a lot of relapses,” Steve said on a perfect-Arizona-weather Friday evening as families streamed in behind him just before the kickoff of the men’s soccer game vs. Oral Roberts University of Tulsa, Okla.
The struggle isn’t over for Jeff, now 29, whose parents founded the Children’s Cancer Network in 2004 to help other families facing the same crisis with emotional and financial support as well as educational resources. Families can get gas and food gift cards, scholarships, wigs and more from the organization, which has provided more than $1.5 million in patient services.
CCN kicked off its eighth annual Run to Fight Children’s Cancer (register here) at Friday night’s game. Volunteers manned a purple tent outside the field to sign up runners and walkers for the event. GCU is hosting the 10K/5K on its campus March 10.
Players donned gold ribbons in honor of the families battling cancer, and 22 survivors and siblings, many of these “superheroes” zipping around the game area in their survivor capes, walked through the main tunnel into the stadium alongside GCU and Oral Roberts athletes. They also had the chance to kick a goal at halftime.
“From volunteers to players to the announcer’s booth, the gold is everywhere,” said Debbie Accomazzo, GCU’s Community Outreach Manager, just before the start of the game.
Since September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, it was a perfect time to begin gearing up for the race – a 10K run and 5K run/walk that attracts more than 3,000 runners and spectators annually. Run to Fight was started by GCU, which approached the Luttrells and Children’s Cancer Network about seven years ago.
“They said, ‘Hey, we want to do this race. We want the race to be at the University. We want the money we raise to help you guys,” Steve said. “… The University has really been good about helping put on the race. In the future, we will be taking over the operation ourselves.”
Accomazzo said, “What this night is about is creating awareness about funds needed. … But it’s also honoring all the children and families that are in this fight.”
Steve said he and Patti were fortunate in their family’s cancer fight to have some of the financial resources they needed. Other families weren’t as fortunate.
“We founded the organization to help families like that,” he said. “It started out financially.”
In the United States, about 18,000 children through age 19 are diagnosed with cancer annually, but the funding for pediatric cancer research remains below 5 percent.
CCN supports about 650 Arizona families each year and to date has raised more than $500,000.
But it isn’t just about the financial support. It’s also about friendship and building families beyond the confines of one’s nuclear family.
Ann Hyduchak’s son, Jace, was the 2017 race starter – a child is given the honor annually of starting the race. They and the rest of their family were one of the survivor families attending Friday night’s soccer game.
She said, “It’s almost like a support system anymore. Everyone’s become family. I feel like we’re part of the organization now. We’ll be here for several years to come.”
IF YOU GO
What: Eighth annual Run to Fight Children’s Cancer
When: March 10, with the 10K kicking off at 7 a.m., the 5K at 7:45 a.m. and the cancer survivors walk at 9 a.m.
Where: GCU’s main campus, 3300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix
Etc.: Includes a 10K run, 5K run/walk and a quarter-mile cancer survivors walk to raise awareness of pediatric cancer and funds for Phoenix children’s Hospital and Children’s Cancer Network
Registration and fees: $25 for the 5K and $35 for the 10K if you sign up by Jan. 31
Contact Lana Sweeten-Shults at (602) 639-7901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.