Patti Lutrell knows too well the agony that rends a parent’s heart when a cancer diagnosis is made. When her son Jeff was 5 years old, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Out of this nightmare was born an organization that brings hope, help and healing to families in similar straits.
The Children’s Cancer Network features innovative programming and activities, like an afternoon dubbed “Superhero Fort Building.” Kids with cancer gathered at the organization’s West Chandler headquarters to build forts and win prizes. The event took place during National Childhood Cancer Awareness month, which continues through September.
“It’s a family event to celebrate cancer awareness and bring families together, to create positive memories and have a lot of fun,” Lutrell said, but it’s what goes on behind the scenes that’s key.
As the kids are playing, she’s watching the parents talk. A father who’s active in the group was connecting with a mom whose child’s cancer journey has just begun. It’s moments like these that make Children’s Cancer Network so unique.
The seeds for the group were planted in 2000 when Lutrell’s son was receiving a bone marrow transplant at the University of Arizona Medical Center. A girl in the next room died, and her family didn’t have enough money to buy gas for the return trip to Phoenix.
It’s not an uncommon scenario. Cancer is a catastrophic illness that quickly drains a family’s financial resources. Items like fuel and groceries add up, and families often come up short.
“My daughter Jenny, who was just 16 at the time, was blown away by that—a family, after going through so much and having to worry about something like money to put gas in their car. So she told me that night that we were going to make a difference,” Lutrell said.
When Jenny was a senior at Corona del Sol High School, Children’s Cancer Network held its first fashion show-luncheon and auction.
“It was her vision that kids would be part of the solution for helping other families and that would be part of their healing, so that’s still our signature event today,” Lutrell said. “That first year we raised about $10,000.” Funds were split between helping patients in the bone-marrow units at UA Medical Center and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Now 27, Jeff Lutrell is a student at The Art Institute of Phoenix and three classes away from graduation. It’s been a roller coaster of a journey, Lutrell says. Jeff has had both recurrences of leukemia and secondary cancers, but for now, he’s doing well.
Brenda Vanderbur remembers attending the fashion show 10 years ago, when the organization was initially taking root.
“You go and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m helping.’ You never think it’s going to be you that’s going to need help.”
But in 2014, it was Brenda who turned to Children’s Cancer Network for support. Her son Ridge, a Corona student, was diagnosed with leukemia. She and her husband were taking turns staying with Ridge around the clock, and that meant lots of daily trips from their West Chandler neighborhood to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and later, to Mayo Clinic Hospital in the far north Valley. Ridge was hospitalized for eight months, and all that driving added up to a lot of trips to the gas station, too.
At Phoenix Children’s, the family received an admission bag from Children’s Cancer Network. The bag contained a gas card and other goodies, plus contact information for Lutrell.
Brenda remembers that first call.
“I called her and I couldn’t even talk,” Brenda said. “She answered the phone and I totally just started blubbering—I couldn’t even speak. She said, ‘This must be a mom that’s new to cancer.’”
That’s how the friendship between the two women began. These days Brenda finds herself volunteering to help other families.
“I had somebody to cry my heart out to that understood, and we developed this relationship. The support…I really can’t even explain how much it means to talk to somebody who’s been there and understands,” Brenda said.
“I think that’s why I feel the need to be involved and to give back to help others. You find healing sometimes that way, in helping others and in sharing your story.”
Lutrell says it’s those connections between parents that make Children’s Cancer Network so special.
One family turned to the organization for help after their insurance company denied coverage for treatment at a Houston-area hospital. They were able to receive gas money for the father and brother to make the drive, and Lutrell is still working on getting airfare for the girl to make the trip. Meanwhile, she’s introduced them to families who have already completed treatment.
“Prior to meeting other families, you feel like you’re really alone. And you don’t ever want anyone to feel that they’re alone. You want to make sure they know that’s there’s a listening ear and resources and help,” Lutrell said—even after the cancer journey takes a terrible twist.
Sometimes, there isn’t a cure. Sometimes, the cancer kills.
After a courageous struggle, Ridge passed away last April. Brenda said she’s grateful for the outpouring of community support and especially for the support of the Children’s Cancer Network.
The organization has given $70,000 in gas and food gift cards so far this year. They’ve also been approved as a charitable organization for Arizona’s tax credit. That means taxpayers in Arizona who file singly can give up to $200. For a couple, the tax credit is up to $400.
“People who have not been through it, they sympathize, but you can’t get the full magnitude of it unless you’ve been through it,” Vanderbur said. “That is what’s so helpful — the support from people who have been there and walked that walk.”
For more information or to volunteer, call 602-717-9139 or visit ChildrensCancerNetwork.org.