Eight-year-old Katelyn Vaser is proof of the difference the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Gateway Chapter (LLS) has made in St. Louis. Three years ago, when she was diagnosed with a typically adult form of cancer—B cell lymphoma—her parents were blindsided. “When we took her to the hospital, my wife and I had no idea she had cancer,” says Katelyn’s dad, Dan Vaser. “So we were scrambling for information.” That’s when they found LLS. “At the time Katelyn was diagnosed, it had spread to most of her major organs and her nervous system,” he explains. “We relied on the LLS website, where there was a lot of informational support. And the more information I had, the better I felt.”
LLS—which focuses on finding a cure for blood cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma and Hodgkin’s disease—would go on to play an even larger role in Katelyn’s recovery. After six months of intense chemotherapy at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, Katelyn went into remission in July of 2011. But five months later, her cancer, a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, returned in the rare form of a brain tumor. Following more rounds of chemotherapy, as well as radiation, a bone marrow transplant and intravenous drugs, Katelyn has been back at school every day this year after missing kindergarten and first grade. “LLS had a significant role in funding the development of one of the drugs—Rituxan—that saved Katelyn’s life,” Vaser notes. “It attacks and kills B cells, without harming the rest of body.”
Healthy and back to the activities she most enjoys—school, charity work and taking care of animals (she wants to be a marine veterinarian)—Katelyn is this year’s LLS Girl of the Year.
Sadly, LLS Boy of the Year, 13-year-old Tyler, passed away this month, following a tough fight with leukemia. Gateway chapter executive director Debbie Kersting says LLS is heartbroken over the loss. "His passing inspires us to find a cure as soon as possible."
Events like the LLS 2013 Man & Woman of the Year, to be held April 18 at The Ritz-Carlton, are designed to raise money toward finding a cure. During a 10-week period prior to the event, 10 Man & Woman of the Year candidates raise funds for LLS through online donations, sponsorships and various events. This year’s Man & Woman of the Year candidates are: Justin Baker, Matt Conners, Rosa Frankiewicz, Mary Frontczak, Shep Hyken, Tim Mack, Andy Mansfield, Jeff Rainwater, Scott Savacool and Scott Schulte. The candidates who collect the most funds will be recognized at the event. And proceeds will benefit the nonprofit’s critical needs—from research and outreach to financial assistance.
As the No. 1 funder of blood-cancer research after the National Institutes of Health, LLS put $262 million into research nationwide in 2012. In St. Louis, The Gateway Chapter served more than 5,000 patients and families with financial support, education and support groups in 2012, and invested $11.6 million during the past three years for research in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas. In addition, the organization provided cancer and volunteerism information in some 600 schools and supported kids returning to school after treatment.
While much progress has been made—today, pediatric leukemia patients have a 91 percent survival rate—there is still work to be done, Kersting says. “Patients and families are asking for three major things: a cure—and research is the only way to get the right tools in the hands of doctors they are working with; financial help—we have given $1.2 million in assistance in 2012 and hope to grow that this year; and family support groups—because when one person in a family is sick, the whole family is out of kilter.” LLS connects families with like diagnoses and age groups to give each of them hope. One of the Woman of the Year candidates, Frankiewicz, who also went through non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, knows what Katelyn overcame, the girl's father notes. “It’s a neat experience for Katelyn to see an adult who has done exactly what she’s done, survived and gone on to do better things."