The Battle to Wipe Out Kids’ Cancer
Read the article here: The Dallas Express
Founded by Cindy Brinker-Simmons, Wipe Out Kids’ Cancer (WOKC) strives to assist families and children affected by cancer by providing comfort, companionship, and funding for novel pediatric cancer to eradicate it forever.
It would be easy to compare Brinker-Simmons to a five-star general whose mission is to eliminate pediatric cancer. The war for Brinker-Simmons started at 12 years old when she lost her mother to ovarian cancer.
Brinker-Simmons’ mother, a world-renowned tennis player, ranked number one in women’s tennis in 1952. She still holds the record as the only woman to win the calendar Grand Slam, winning the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon in the same year.
“That was the only opponent that [defeated her]; it was too powerful and too mean-spirited,” says Brinker-Simmons. “We lost her when she was 34 years old in June of 1969. So, sitting there so heartbroken, angry, and confused, I just resolved at age 12 that someday, somehow, somewhere, I was going to do something to eradicate the scourge of a disease that had taken my mom’s life.”
Following her mother’s death and graduation from the University of Virginia, Brinker-Simmons took a job at Willowbend Polo and Hunt Club.
She had the idea to plan a fundraiser that included a weekend of fun-filled activities where members would participate in various events such as a tennis tournament, horse show, bake sale, and even a dance marathon to raise money for cancer research.
The event was a success; surpassing her $2,000 goal, Simmons raised $6,000 in the first year. The fundraiser, then titled “A Weekend at Willowbend to Wipe Out Kids’ Cancer in Your Lifetime” — a name Brinker-Simmons laughs at now after owning her own P.R. firm for years — went on to raise $17,000 in its second year.
For the third year, Simmons received a very generous offer from a local developer, Talmage Tinsley, who offered to underwrite the event. Raising $22,000 in the third year, Simmons realized she had created a way to make a difference in the fight against cancer. She was encouraged to incorporate the event, making it a nonprofit, and in 1980, Wipeout Kids Cancer was born.
Three years later, WOKC funded its first major research project focused on acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common cause of death by disease for children under 18 at the time.
The research project paved the way for Children’s Medical Center Dallas to have worldwide prominence.
“We went to war,” explains Brinker-Simmons. “Because back then, ALL claimed children’s lives, with only a 20% survival rate. And it just so happened that the project we supported became nationally respected, and now the survival rate of pediatric ALL is 85-92% percent. I feel like we were part of that because our Children’s [Medical Center] programs were widely used.”
In 2019, WOKC piloted a project that became the largest pediatric acute myeloid leukemia (AML) genetic study using whole-genome sequencing in the United States.
AML is an adult cancer; while it often has a grim prognosis for adults, Brinker-Simmons explains that it is a death sentence for children.
Brinker-Simmons says the current AML study has been a homerun for WOKC and its funding partners.
“The idea is for us to give seed money to prove the efficacy and effectiveness [of the research]. Next, the study receives funding from larger cancer grant organizations like the National Cancer Institute, NCI, or here in Texas, the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas,” she explains.
With the funding in place for the pediatric acute myeloid leukemia project, researchers were able to create an arsenal against pediatric AML. They successfully discovered vulnerabilities and biomarkers, and other therapeutics in AML, allowing them to secure $12 million in grant money from the National Cancer Institute to continue its research.
Brinker-Simmons says WOKC has raised $7 million in seed money for research, which has yielded a conservative $30 million in grant money.
But Brinker-Simmons’ war on cancer did not stop at research.
The WOKC’s Ambassadors Program was created in 1987, renamed the Warrior Family Program in 2019.
The program gives children with cancer and their families a chance to meet and connect with other cancer-affected families for fun activities and outings. WOKC provides a memorable experience for children and families, from sporting events and summer camps to holiday parties.
“What it does is it brings families together… Many times cancer, besides being destructive, and painful, mean and very disruptive, it is also isolating,” shares Brinker-Simmons. “A lot of these children can’t go to school because they’re immunosuppressed. Their siblings can’t have friends over because germs could be brought [into the home] that can affect the child with cancer… there’s a lot of tension.”
“These events bring families together to talk to each other. Being able to hear, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ and comparing notes on lifestyles and treatments … it’s amazing how families can figure out how they can improve their treatment or do things differently to improve their families by the tools they share,” she explains.
Usually, when a child is diagnosed with cancer, they go from getting a routine checkup to learning about the devastating cancer diagnosis to heading directly to the hospital.
“So [as a parent] you would take your spinning head and your absolute shock, and disbelief, and take your child directly to the hospital,” says Simmons.
Parents and their children are sometimes in the hospital with no definite release time for days to several months.
WOKC meets families at the hospital with compassion, a warm presence, and a buddy bag. Brinker-Simmons explains that since 2008, WOKC has provided every child that comes to their partner hospitals with a cancer diagnosis with a buddy bag.
The sturdy rolling suitcase is full of essentials such as toiletries, gift cards for hospital restaurants, and parking passes for parents. There are games, toys, earbuds, an electronic pad, colors, and a coloring book for kids. The bags’ contents make the transition into an unexpected and scary journey more soothing.
“What just touches my heart is many people say these buddy bags are medicine for their soul,” Brinker-Simmons says, fighting back the tears.
The Buddy Bag program has had such a profound effect that hospitals in Austin and Houston have reached out to WOKC to incorporate the program into their facilities.
“We have been fighting on a bloody battlefield. It is treacherous and difficult. I have tears because of the emotions I feel just from shouldering some of the family’s pain and suffering. These families mean so much, but not just to me, there is no “I” in team, and this has been a team thing. I just started the movement and have been involved for 42 years, but the movement is because people catch the vision,” Brinker-Simmons expresses.
“When talking about kids with cancer, it’s hard not to catch that vision; it’s hard not to feel if you have children,” she notes.
As WOKC celebrates its 42nd year in 2022 with its annual anniversary gala, the nonprofit continues to fund innovative research to eradicate novel pediatric cancer and continues its advocacy on behalf of children who have cancer.
Unfortunately, Brinker-Simmons says the war is far from over.
“It is so unnatural to have a sick child and so unnatural to lose a child. I marvel at these incredible parents because they know what they know, that their kids might not ever realize their dreams, and that’s crushing. So what makes me very happy is that our work has had a tremendous impact and influence in the pediatric cancer space for 42 years.”