On a Monday afternoon in February 2007, Gretchen Holt-Witt took Liam, her 2 ½-year-old son, to his pediatrician because of some new habits—longer naps, pickier eating. After subsequent tests, the doctor called with impossible news: The ultrasound had found a large mass in Liam’s abdomen. After more testing at the hospital, Gretchen learned that her son had neuroblastoma, a ruthless cancer that affects nerve cells.
Liam began three rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, then later underwent a 12 ½-hour surgery that left him on a ventilator. He faced more high-dose chemotherapy, multiple rounds of radiation therapy, retinoid therapy, and an antibody therapy so painful that it’s given with an addictive, morphine-like drug. Meanwhile, Gretchen grappled with a startling fact that she discovered the first week Liam was in the hospital: Among diseases, cancer is the number-one killer of children in the United States.
“I asked Liam’s oncologist how it was possible that I’d never heard that,” says Gretchen, a 45-year-old public relations consultant from Califon, New Jersey. She recalls that the doctor told her that people don’t care enough about kids who get cancer. They don’t make headlines; their diseases don’t get funding.
After Liam was declared disease free a few months later, his parents were overwhelmed with the impulse to give back. “Pediatric cancer is just so frightening,” says Gretchen. To ask for help without scaring people off, she decided to bake cookies—96,000 of them, over a few weeks—in exchange for donations. She and her husband enlisted friends to help, found a certified kitchen in Brooklyn, and launched a website to sell the cookies, which she packaged with a note to raise awareness about pediatric cancer. As local news stations picked up the story, the batches quickly sold out.
“Everyone said, ‘I had no idea cancer was the number-one disease killer of children. How can I help?’” Gretchen says. “I knew it wasn’t that ‘nobody cares.’ They just didn’t know.”
After the ovens had cooled, Gretchen and her husband developed a plan to help other people hold bake sales, assembled a medical advisory board, and began investigating the best research groups to support. In September 2008, they launched the nonprofit Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, to raise research dollars for five powerhouse pediatric cancer centers. Bake sales and other fund-raising events began to spring up, eventually in all 50 states as well as overseas. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer has since raised more than $7 million for pediatric cancer research and has helped fund six new treatments for kids.
But as fund-raisers flourished, Liam’s disease recurred. He endured more surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and antibody treatments before his brave battle ended on a January afternoon in 2011.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you keep doing this even though you lost?’” says Gretchen, also mom to Ella, eight. “One day, I’ll see Liam again. I know he’s going to ask, ‘Mommy, did you make it better for other people?’ How could I look him in the face if I couldn’t say I had done everything I could? That meeting keeps me moving forward. And I can’t wait to see him again.”
To make a donation, visit cookiesforkidscancer.org.
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