Meet the Parents Fighting to End Pediatric Cancer

When these parents heard the unimaginable words “your child has cancer,” they grieved—then got to work to help find a cure.

By Kimberly Hiss
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

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.

gretchen holt-wittSpencer Heyfron/Redux for Reader’s Digest

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.”

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Next: Barbara Canales and The Ready or Not Foundation »

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  • Your Comments

    • Phaerisee

      I think the word “inspiring” tends to get overused, but in this case it applies.

    • James

      Nothing worse than what you and your child are going through
      i sympathize as I was diagnosed with a rare blood condition and found that there is very little being done for a cure only expensive treatment and believe that only the mass cancer issue are being addressed and even those are lobbyists controlled .. Example Leukemia foundation a wonderful group with true financial suppot compared to American Cancer Society which will par for your car fare to the hospital I have know I idea what they are doing with their money for research to cover the gamut..People don’t want to hear about the C word they just give money and the do diligence is in a cloud..

    • Deb

      Please be aware that Penn State University holds a THON each year to benefit children’s cancer research and expenses. They have raised over $100M since it began over 20 years ago ($12M last year alone). This is the largest student run philanthropy in the world–the students spent weekends in the fall “canning” throughout the eastern United States and I even saw a homeless man put money in a can in center city Philadelphia! Then they hold a dance marathon in February (coming up in a few days) where they dance for 46 hours. It’s a really emotional event because many student organizations will “adopt” a childhood cancer patient and their family and the students provide support to that family throughout the year with visits, treats, cards, etc. and then the families are invited to attend the thon event to “support” their dancers. It’s the highlight of the year for some of these kids.

    • Nancy

      Wonderful story!! I lost my son Alexander on April 1’2011 to neuroblastoma. He was just 21 months old. Before he was diagnosed, I “knew” kids got cancer, but I never really gave it much thought. It is an evil horrible disease. I am glad there are parents like these, along with others that are raising funds to help the kids. Not is just sad, that it is the PARENTS doing all the work, and the government giving just 4% of the cancer funding to the kids.