Your Impact

When a Child Dreams

10-year-old leukemia patient’s desire to help other children inspires Stop Children’s Cancer’s support for UF pediatric cancer research

By David Finnerty UF Advancement Published May 30, 2024

Band class, that’s what Nicole Myer’s mom first thought. It had to be her daughter’s baritone — its thundering honk, honk, honk in her ear, the workout on the lungs — causing the sixth grader’s almost daily headaches?

But in September 2015 — after Nicole lost her balance and had to be carried to the school clinic — a CT scan discovered that the problem wasn’t the baritone.

It was a brain tumor.

Doctors at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital operated the next morning. And more surgeries, nine blood transfusions and a life-saving platelet transfusion followed. In time, Nicole relearned to walk, to use her hands, to enjoy not having the menacing headaches.

She’s one of hundreds of children treated for cancer at UF. Courtney Holcomb — diagnosed with stage 5 eye cancer in 2013 — is another. So is Jada Turner (leukemia), Loxley Slocumb (bone cancer) and Mazzy Jester (Hodgkin’s lymphoma).

Through it all has been Stop Children’s Cancer, Inc. The Gainesville not-for-profit has been partnering with UF’s doctors, nurses and researchers since 1981.

This winter, Stop Children’s Cancer renewed its unwavering support with a $1 million pledge to the UF College of Medicine’s division of pediatric hematology/oncology. The contribution is fueling research innovations in therapies and treatments aimed at improving outcomes for children facing cancer.

“With this continued additional gift, our hopes are that more children have the ability to become healthy,” says Howard Freeman, who started Stop Children’s Cancer with his wife and daughters.

The organization began 43 years ago at the urging of then 10-year-old Bonnie Freeman. Bonnie, who’d been diagnosed with leukemia, asked her parents to help her “do something so others do not have to go through what we are going through.” While battling her own illness, she wrote letters, made TV appearances and held bake sales to raise awareness about childhood cancer.

The week before Bonnie died in 1983, she wrote: “I feel that since the money [raised] from this fund is for all the kids in the world, everyone should help! We need your help to raise over $1,000,000 … I don’t want other kids and their families to go though all the same things which we had to.” She signed the letter, “Love, Bonnie Freeman, 12 years old.”

In the years since, Stop Children’s Cancer has been instrumental in raising $23 million for pediatric care.

“Bonnie inspired us so much the way she understood the reality of where she was at,” Laurel Freeman, her mother, says. “She was determined to live every day to the fullest and that really motivated us.”

One of the researchers benefitting from Stop Children’s Cancer support is pediatric oncologist Dr. Elias Sayour, who holds the Stop Children’s Cancer/Bonnie R. Freeman Professorship for Pediatric Oncology Research. He and his team are investigating new nanotechnology vaccines to reprogram the immune system against cancer cells. Their focus is on personalized nanoparticles, designed to educate the immune system to reject pediatric cancer and presents a transformative approach to the fight against this disease. Their work, alongside other pioneering efforts, highlights the cutting-edge advancements taking place at UF.

“In the field of pediatric immunotherapy, meaningful progress has been made with new agents like CAR T-cells and rituximab, a type of antibody therapy that can be used alone or with chemotherapy,” Dr. Sayour says. “UF provides a unique opportunity to develop and trial these agents individually and in combinations.”

Cancer is the No. 1 cause of death by disease in children in the United States. Almost 10,000 children under 15 are expected to be diagnosed in 2024 alone, and 1,000 patients will die, according to historical patterns.

Discoveries and developments at UF are helping to treat those children and others with pediatric cancer across the world. When Bonnie was diagnosed with leukemia, she had a 35% chance of living for five years. Today, children with that same diagnosis have a 90% cure rate, explains UF pediatric hematologist-oncologist Dr. William Slayton.

“Stop Children’s Cancer started as the heartfelt response of a 10-year-old diagnosed with cancer. It’s one of the purest, altruistic charities, driven by a dream to spare other families the challenges we faced,” says Carolyne Freeman, Bonnie’s sister. “The culture of giving can be seen throughout every part of Stop Children’s Cancer from the board to our sponsors, to our volunteers. Whether contributing financially or with time, it’s a meaningful investment and it’s making an impact in the world. We truly hope childhood cancer becomes a disease of the past.”

By David Finnerty UF Advancement Published May 30, 2024