PORTLAND, Ore. — Look at the clock. Because every three minutes, one person in the United States is diagnosed with blood cancer.
Every nine minutes, someone in the U.S. dies from it.
But researchers are busy developing better treatments that may help doctors detect it sooner and reduce the side effects treatments have on patients. That’s something families across Oregon, Washington, and the country, hope will happen soon.
When you meet Sasha, she seems like any other four-year-old girl.
“Will you get me a lollipop,” she asked her parents while she visited the KGW studios.
She’s goofy, gregarious, and has big goals.
“When I grow up, I wanna be a cameraman… a camera girl,” she said.
But unlike other kids her age, she's already been through a lot.
“In October of 2017, Sasha was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” said her mom Randi Harris.
What Sasha has is a type of blood cancer, the most common type of cancer in kids. Blood cancer in general is also one of the most common cancers in older adults.
Whether blood cancer is curable, depends on what kind it is. Sasha's is curable, and thanks to her time in the hospital, she knows all about cancer.
“They told my parents it was mean,” said Sasha.
“When it gets inside your body, it makes you very sick. It got all in my blood.”
Doctors wasted no time when they diagnosed her. At two years old, they started Sasha on chemotherapy.
“You gain a lot of weight when you're on all the steroids and a lot of puffiness, and you just watched a two-year-old's body transform in that way and she was in a lot of pain. It was tough,” said Harris.
But Sasha is one of the fortunate ones.
“The research that's been done so far is saving her life,” her mom said.
Community members passionate about funding research
Helping fund the research that’s making a difference in Sasha’s life and so many others, are people like Mike Hilliard and his ‘Team in Training’ members.
They raise money that goes directly to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), which helps families in our area, as well as researchers looking for cures.
Here’s how it works: people who want to run marathons or other races pay the coaches on Team in Training to help them achieve their goals.
“If you’re going to train for an endurance event and you’re considering paying for a coach, use that money to go toward something that’s gonna not only help yourself and make yourself better, but help somebody else,” said Jennifer Barrow, who is a runner and one of the coaches on the team.
Barrow said she was only going to participate for one year so she could run one race. But she kept coming back. Now she’s been a part of Team in Training for seven years.
Another participant, and now coach, who keeps coming back is Michelle Watson. She said Team in Training has helped her reach many of her personal running goals.
The coaches keep a small amount of the money, enough to pay for gas and supplies. The rest is donated to LLS.
“For me, Team in Training has that special sauce,” said Hilliard, who spends much of his free time on the track coaching to raise money for LLS.
“Tens of thousands of people get support from our organization. So it’s not just about funneling dollars to those amazing scientists. It’s about helping people in our local communities as well," Hilliard said.
He knows all too well the pain of cancer. He’s had friends and family members who have passed away from it. That’s what fuels his passion to raise money and make a difference.
He said joining Team in Training when he moved to the Portland area is one of the best decisions he’s made.
“I made a whole bunch of new friends, got to know my new town, and got to kick cancer in the patootey. I mean how could you ask for more,” Hilliard said.
Dollars making a difference
It's thanks to people, like those who fund raise for Team in Training, that doctor Uma Borate says progress has been made. But she says more still needs to be done.
“Without funding, without more research, we're never going to find a cure for cancer,” said Borate.
“Every dollar people contribute matters immensely,” agreed Harris, Sasha’s mom.
Sasha and her family are feeling grateful. The little girl finishes up her treatment in December.
“We're at the home stretch, which is very exciting,” Harris said.
And if you ask Sasha how she’s feeling now, it’s clear that she’s feeling better.
“Cute and adorable,” said Sasha.
That’s exactly how a four-year-old girl should be feeling.
Groundbreaking clinical trial underway
Dr. Borate said right now, LLS is sponsoring a big, groundbreaking clinical trial.
It focuses on patients over the age of 60 who have leukemia. The hope is to develop therapy that targets the patient’s specific cancer with drugs that are unique to each individual patient.
Borate said the trial is open to patients at OHSU and other institutions. People can get more information from LLS.
How you can get involved
This weekend the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is holding a big fundraiser called 'Light the Night.'
The event is happening across the country and in Canada. There's a 1.5-mile walk happening in Portland on Saturday. The plan is for people to meet at the OMSI gravel parking lot between 5-7pm and walk across the Tilikum Bridge together, around OHSU, and back. Fireworks will go off at 8pm.
To register, visit the Light the Night website.