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Hope on Wheels: Battling Pediatric Cancer

Hope on Wheels: Battling Pediatric Cancer

We were inspired to learn more about fighting pediatric cancer after the Hyundai Hope on Wheels event.


We met three incredible moms and three even more amazing kids—and learned plenty about the challenge of pediatric cancer— at the recent Hyundai Hope on Wheels Pediatric Cancer Awareness event.

1 every 36 minutes. That’s the rate at which children receive a cancer diagnosis.  In visual terms, picture one elementary school classroom of kids each and every day.

Pediatric cancers are not the cancers we all hear so much about, just in kids. They’re different from adult cancers, often triggered as organs grow and develop. Blastomas are the best-known example.

And unlike adult cancers, many of which have known risk factors that can be avoided, like sun exposure, smoking, or obesity, pediatric cancers by and large can’t be prevented.

The 80% overall cure rate of pediatric cancers may seem relatively good when compared to various types of adult cancers, but that translates to 3,000 children dying annually. Then there’s the issue of “meaningful survivorship,” the idea that not dying is not the same thing as living a full life. It’s particularly relevant when you’re talking about children. Some treatments cause toxicity issues later on, resulting in infertility or early menopause.

“Many aspects of pediatric cancer care can affect being able to fully engage in school, work, friendships, and romantic relationships, as well as parenting,” said panelist Jennifer Levine, MD, MSW, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center Division of Pediatric Oncology. “These can range from physical limitations like amputation to cognitive limitations from radiation to the brain.”

But the event wasn't an outlet for bad news. The afternoon was brightened by three kids, and their moms, who after a hard fight, are now cancer-free and resuming the everyday life of other kids their age.

Nicole Burnette’s youngest daughter, 11-year-old Ashley, was diagnosed at age 7, and is now a Hope On Wheels National Youth Ambassador.

Lori Thomas was beaming as she told of what a strong fighter 10-year-old Kenny is. She had a battle to wage, as well. “I’d go outside the hospital room and put on my game face. I did that because my son would look at my eyes, and use that as a barometer to how he should feel.”

Brianna Commerford was named the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital Hope and Heroes Children’s Cancer Fund spokesperson. Brianna says her cancer was hard on the whole family, especially on her mom, Lorraine—but it also brought them all closer together.

And the good news didn’t end there. Hyundai, who has already given $100 million to the pediatric cancer cause, is matching dealer contributions in the tri-state area. The money will go specifically to fund research and raise awareness, both of which are surprisingly lacking. “Research relies entirely on government funding, of which pediatric cancers only get 3.9%,” explained Hyundai Hope On Wheels Board Member & President and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, Dave Zuchowski. “Other cancers, like breast and prostate, get much more.” Additional research could identify possible genetic links to certain pediatric cancers. And hopefully, added Zuchowski, attract the best and brightest to the field. Many medical students steer to the specialties with the highest income potential. Unfortunately, pediatrics isn’t one of them.

But shining a light on pediatric cancer can and will change the lives of many families.

“Ashley’s battle with cancer awakened our entire family to a lot of positive experiences,” shared Burnette. “ We were shown such love and support from so many strangers, and that in turn made us want to spread love and support to others. Ashley's positive attitude during her treatments inspired us all to try to enjoy life even during the tougher times, and to steer clear of any negative energy.”


Main photo: From left, Lorraine Commerford and daughter Brianna; Nicole Burnette with daughter Ashley; Lori Thomas and son Kenny.


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Christina Vercelletto


 Christina Vercelletto is a former editor at NYMetroParents, ParentingScholastic Parent & Child, and Woman’s Day. She lives on Long Island with her kids, a chiweenie, Pickles, and a 20-pound calico, Chub-Chub.

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