Lifestyle

Bainbridge event supports cancer researcher’s uphill battle

Hannah Hunt and her mother Reba Ferguson are hosting a fund raiser for Dr. Olson’s brain cancer research at 7 p.m. March 19 at Grace Church.  - Courtesy Photo
Hannah Hunt and her mother Reba Ferguson are hosting a fund raiser for Dr. Olson’s brain cancer research at 7 p.m. March 19 at Grace Church.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Reba Ferguson doesn’t want any child to go through what her daughter, Hannah Hunt, has endured.

In 2007, her bright, happy outgoing 9-year-old began having excruciating headaches. A CT scan at a Seattle clinic revealed that Hannah had a brain tumor.

“Hannah faced all of these tests bravely, calmly and with eyes wide open,” Ferguson said.

The very next day, a team of neurosurgeons removed the golf-ball sized tumor lodged between the cerebellum and brain stem, known as anaplastic medulloblastoma.

Over the next 12 months, Hannah endured chemotherapy and radiation, which is debilitating when directed at the brain. But, thankfully, she remained cancer-free.

Until last May, that is, when an MRI revealed the cancer was back. Doctors put her on the most aggressive form of chemotherapy available, in pill form, which has enabled her to continue her life at home and school.

Through the ordeal, she was introduced to Dr. Jim Olson, a brain cancer researcher at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital who is considered a leading cancer researcher in the world.

Breakthrough research

In 2007, Dr. Olson made a breakthrough when he found an extract of venom from the “death stalker scorpion” that selectively attaches itself to cancer cells. Because it leaves healthy cells untouched, this “tumor paint” illuminates only cancerous cells, assisting doctors in a more accurate diagnosis. It also aids in surgery, identifying which cells should be removed and which are healthy.

Dr. Olson has been working to get “Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5” into hospitals, but that will take time and approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Catch-22 is that presenting his case takes money and raising funds takes time away from research.

Enter Hannah Hunt, whose life may depend on Dr. Olson’s research.

On her blog (www.caringbridge.org/visit/hannahhunt), Ferguson shares some of the questions her daughter had when she learned last May that the cancer had returned.

“Am I going to die? Are my chances of surviving less than the first time? Is heaven like my life here?”

Ferguson calls the ordeal a parent’s worst nightmare.

“No parent should have to hear these questions from their 10-year-old child. This is why we support Dr. Olson and the work in his lab,” she said.

Ferguson decided to organize a fund raiser – not to pay for medical bills which are completely covered – but to support Dr. Olson’s research. The event, named Hannah’s Hopeful Hearts, will feature speakers who have faced and beat tough challenges of their own, including climber Ed Viesturs, cancer survivor Cheryl Broyles and Dr. Olson.

The climb

Ed Viesturs has faced a few uphill battles.

His quest to reach the summit of all 14 of the world’s highest peaks (above 8,000 meters) without the use of bottled oxygen, took 16 years to accomplish. As America’s leading high-altitude mountaineer, Viesturs has seen his share of setbacks, impasses and life-threatening trials. He once had to turn back only 300 feet from the top of Mount Everest, and he’s lost more than a few friends to the mountains.

On the phone, Viesturs quoted a line from Maurice Herzog’s book, “Annapurna,” which Viesturs read as a young boy and which he credits for inspiring him to take up climbing.

“All of us are challenged in some way,” Viesturs said. “We get through it with perseverance, fortitude – with family and friends.

“Challenges reveal character. Struggle shows us what we’re capable of. Some people never tap into it because they are never pushed to their limits.”

“We all have our Annapurnas,” he said, “but the difference is, I chose mine. Hannah didn’t. She’s climbing this mountain, with the support of her family and friends, the community, and her doctors.”

Beating cancer, again

In 2000, doctors gave Cheryl Broyles less than a year to live. With two toddlers at home, Broyles had a lot to live for and she put up a fierce fight. Four years later, she decided to climb Mount Shasta as a way to celebrate her victory over cancer.

“At the base of Misery Hill, we stopped and stared,” she wrote in “Life’s Mountains.” “The slope was so steep, switchback after switchback twisted its way up.”

She survived the arduous climb, but less than a month later, an MRI revealed that the cancer had returned.

“Talk about a setback,” Broyles wrote in an email.

On the long trip home from the oncologist’s, she found strength in remembering her climb.

“My Mount Shasta guide, Genero, had told me that he felt making it successfully to the peak was based on 80 percent mental attitude and only 20 percent physical fitness. I also remembered the wisdom, ‘You are what you think you are.’ But most importantly God’s Word came to mind, Joshua 1:9 ‘Be strong and courageous, do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’”

Broyles knows what it means to battle a cancer that keeps coming back for more.

“The GBM has reoccurred in my brain three times. I have gone through four brain surgeries, radiation, and was on chemo for over three years. It has not been an easy battle. What made the difference for the outcome to be positive for me? I believe it’s based on hope. I feel I have the ability to choose how I would respond to any trial in life. I believe it is a choice.”

Since then, Broyles has committed herself to “encouraging others who have been diagnosed with cancer” and to that end, which is why she wanted to participate in the March 19 event.

Support is key

Ferguson is grateful for the support the community, family and friends have shown.

“Not in a million years would we have chosen this path for Hannah, but we will walk it with her,” she said. “We believe in her strength to heal her body, in her feisty, independent spirit, in the love she shares with her many friends and family.”

For a recent assignment for her class at Sakai Middle School, sixth-grader Hunt wrote about her dream to one day find a cure for cancer, writing in the first person from the future she envisions.

“I graduated from Bainbridge High School and I am now studying at UW medical school for a degree in medicine, specializing in a cure for kids’ brain cancer.

“To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous courage and strength, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place for this warrior strength is in the heart.” – Jack Kornfield

“With a warrior spirit, you can fight the cancer.”

– Hannah Hunt

She will need that warrior spirit.

Ferguson’s blog post dated Feb. 24 was brief, yet clear: The latest MRI revealed devastating news. Despite the intense chemotherapy treatments, the cancer has returned yet again.

“Now, everybody gets that we’re up against a monster,” Ferguson said.

The Climb

There’s always going to be another mountain

I’m always going to want to make it move

Always gonna be an uphill battle,

Sometimes you’re gonna have to lose,

Ain’t about how fast I get there,

Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side

It’s the climb.

– By Jessi Alexander and Jon Mabe, performed by Miley Cyrus

For more information about Hannah’s journey or to reserve space at the fund raiser, visit www.hannahshopefulhearts.org.

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