9-year-old personifies spirit of October 16 Children’s Cancer run at Salt River Fields

Gary family participates in the Children’s Cancer Network walk/run in memory of Evan Gary. CCM assists hundreds of families in their cancer journeys. — Photo courtesy Children’s Cancer Network

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By Janie Magruder, for wranglernews.com

These are a few of Christian Lopez’s favorite things: playing the drums, riding a bike, building speed boats from Legos, math on an abacus and his teenaged brother and baby sister.

Pretty typical for a 9-year-old, you are saying. But this boy isn’t your average fourth-grader because, after surgery five years ago to remove a brain tumor, Christian woke up blind.

He has largely been undeterred.

“His time for feeling sorry for himself was three days after his surgery, and then he was done,” said his mom, Brenda. “He’s not afraid. He doesn’t hold back. It’s really cool to see.”

Christian is exactly the type of kid Patti Luttrell, co-founder and executive director of Tempe-based Children’s Cancer Network, wanted for the 2021 Run to Fight Children’s Cancer. As its honorary race starter, the Mesa boy will handle media interviews and blast the air horn to start the events.

“He is very representative of our heroes — resilient, strong — and he faces everything head on,” Luttrell said. “He is just thrilled to be living his life.”

The 11th annual Run to Fight, which raises money and support for young cancer patients and their families in Arizona, and builds awareness of pediatric cancers, is Saturday, Oct. 16, at Salt River Fields, 7555 N. Pima Road in Scottsdale. The 10K starts at 7 a.m., followed by the 5K run/walk at 7:45. A cancer survivors walk around the bases in the ballpark is 9 a.m.

You also can participate virtually, form a team and register at runtofightcancer.com

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among children in the U.S. It’s estimated that 15,590 children and adolescents ages 0-19 will be diagnosed with cancer this year and 1,780 will die.

Overall, the most common types of cancer among children are leukemias, brain and central nervous system tumors and lymphomas.

Luttrell and her husband Steve faced childhood cancer when their son Jeff was diagnosed with leukemia at age 5. He endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and a bone marrow transplant to treat the initial cancer, which recurred four times. Jeff later was diagnosed with a secondary cancer, had numerous surgeries and radiation and a recurrence.

Today, at 33, Jeff has been cancer free for nearly five years, and continues to be an inspiration.

The Luttrells created CCN to offer hope, education and resources to families experiencing similar emotional devastation and economic hardship. The average cost per hospital stay for a child with cancer is $40,000, according to CCN, and most families spend an additional $10,000 in non-medical costs such as gas, parking and additional child care.

Through the Run to Fight and other CCN projects, the organization has provided $4.8 million to Arizona families since 2005. It annually supports 800 families with gas and food cards, wigs, bus passes, health and wellness activities and support programs.

Additionally, CCN awarded in 2020 nearly $40,000 in post-secondary scholarships to survivors, siblings and parents whose lives have been impacted by cancer.

Among CCN’s most meaningful contribution is funding two part-time family counselors at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, a beneficiary of the run.

“Families are so grateful — whether they’re just starting their journey or they’ve been many years off of treatment but perhaps still experiencing its side effects — to have this support at PCH,” Luttrell said.

The 2020 Run to Fight was virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but that didn’t stop CCN from pulling out all the stops. Videos and photos were posted, and t-shirts and medals were sent to 1,000 participants.

“We are there no matter what,” she said.

This will be the first Run to Fight the Lopez family, including Christian’s dad David, his brother Anthony, and his sister Elise. Brenda was pregnant with Elise in June 2016 when Christian was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a half-dollar behind his right eye. What she thought would be a routine eye exam instead revealed an opaque mass, and an MRI at PCH confirmed her worst fears.

“It hit me like a bomb,” said Brenda, who is a nurse.

Not all of the tumor, which was beginning to invade the space behind Christian’s left eye, too, could be removed during surgery. The procedure’s biggest risk — blindness — came true.

“For three days, he didn’t want to eat, drink, talk,” she said. “But on that fourth day, he got up and was like, ‘Mom, I want to go to the play room.’ ‘OK, let’s go,’ and that was that.”

What followed was 18 months of chemotherapy and related side effects, and for a time the spots stopped growing. But when tests showed they were growing again, Christian began treatment a year ago, and it is proving successful, Brenda said.

The family has benefitted from CCN’s summer day camps for Christian and Elise, and has received help paying some of their expenses. But it’s more than that, Brenda said.

“We definitely have been touched by their generosity, and so we’re happy we can help motivate (others) to give,” she said, “because they do so much for so many families.”

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