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There is an excruciating vulnerability that comes with your child’s cancer diagnosis. You are powerless to stop the disease, and you are looking to the person in the white coat to inspire hope, to perform miracles, to save your child—to be nothing short of everything. 

Kris McDonald recalls the day in 1999 when a tumor the size of a man’s fist was discovered in her daughter’s abdomen. Eight-year-old Sammy had stage IV Burkitt’s lymphoma—one of the fastest-spreading pediatric cancers—and the doctors needed to operate and start chemotherapy immediately. Sammy’s doctor at the time was Barton Kamen, MD, PhD, pediatric hematology/oncology chief at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. After delivering the news, Dr. Kamen pulled out a bag of magic tricks, performed for Sammy, and explained how he would melt the tumor with medicine. “She looked at him, and she looked back at her dad and me, and said, ‘I can beat this,’” Kris says. 

Sammy did beat it, and her friendship with Kamen took root during six months of grueling treatment, lasted well beyond remission at age nine, and continued into her adult years. “You don’t find those kinds of doctors all the time, but you can’t trust your child to anyone of a lesser caliber,” says Kris. “There’s probably no one more important in your world than your doctor and team of nurses when your child gets a harsh diagnosis.”

Kris is on the advisory board of the Embrace Kids Foundation, which recently made a $1.5 million gift—matched by another $1.5 million from an anonymous donor—to establish an endowed chair at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. The Embrace Kids Foundation Endowed Chair in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology will enable the Cancer Institute to recruit an internationally distinguished specialist to lead cutting-edge research and treatment initiatives benefitting children seeking care at the center. For families battling a diagnosis, the endowed chair also represents a dual commitment to compassion in practice and excellence in treatment—the very combination that helped Sammy grow into a healthy adult.

“The kids and families deserve top-tier medical care and research. Embrace Kids is a thriving and passionate community with a calling to provide every resource and support possible. This endowed chair is funded in memory of an outstanding doctor and beautiful soul, Dr. Barton Kamen, who would agree the Embrace Kids community is proud of this great accomplishment…but the fight continues,” notes Embrace Kids Foundation Executive Director Glenn Jenkins. For the Cancer Institute, the endowed chair will go a long way toward attracting the best doctors and ensuring ongoing financial support in this area.

Because pediatric cancers are less common, percentage-wise, than adult cancers overall, there tend to be fewer resources dedicated to them, says Robert S. DiPaola, MD, director of the Cancer Institute. But for the New Jersey families who face pediatric cancer diagnoses each year, the Embrace Kids chair brings new hope. In addition to providing an ongoing source of funding specifically for the Cancer Institute’s pediatric center, the designation of a new chair will enable recruitment of a leader who can apply all of the institute’s latest research to the pediatric population.

“It’s about treating the ‘whole’ patient and improving their quality of life. The programs and services offered through Embrace Kids are complementary to what we at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey do in identifying and developing next-generation therapies for these children,” Dr. DiPaola says.

The chair will have a particular focus on researching and implementing precision medicine, a relatively new field that involves analyzing and treating tumors on a genetic level. Through detailed analyses of cancer-causing genetic mutations, precision medicine allows oncologists to prescribe custom therapies for better outcomes. Personalization can also yield fewer side effects, increasing comfort during treatment and keeping growing bodies as healthy as possible.

This $1.5 million gift is the largest commitment to date for Embrace Kids Foundation. The Foundation has a long history of ‘giving,’ as its mission since its inception in 1991 has been to provide support services for families whose children have cancer or a blood disorder. These patients—treated at the Cancer Institute and Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital—benefit from varied programs and family support services including financial and educational assistance, as well as palliative care. Prior to the funding of the endowed chair, Embrace Kids Foundation has made gifts totaling more than $2.5 million to various departments now part of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in support of research, faculty development and support staff including Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the Cancer Institute. The gift also comes full circle, as one of the main supporters of the Embrace Kids Foundation is the Rutgers University Dance Marathon, which over the past 15 years has raised $4.2 million for the organization.

“This (gift) is for the child and family who have not yet been diagnosed,” says Kris. “You never know who may need it next. I certainly would have never guessed it would be me.”

Originally published in the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey’s Winter 2015 issue of Cancer Connection.

About the photo: Embrace Kids and Rutgers Dance Marathon students and advisors were invited onto the field for a Rutgers football halftime presentation in September 2014. The special guest was Lanaya Booker (fourth from left) who lost her battle with Wilms’ tumor later that month.

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