Christine O’Connell knows the walls of Seattle Children’s all too well.
In 2017, the O’Connell’s 3-year-old daughter Jane was diagnosed with stage IV Wilms, a pediatric kidney cancer. The cancer had spread to both of her lungs, lymph nodes and a vertebra in her spine. The months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries that changed their lives forever are still vivid memories.
“Radiation and chemotherapy was our only hope to save Jane’s life, but it is so damaging to young, developing bodies. She will suffer the effects of treatment for the rest of her life,” O’Connell said.
Then she learned that Seattle Children’s was pioneering a better way.
“Immunotherapy programs a child’s immune system to fight cancer cells, offering a treatment without chemotherapy or radiation—or their life-limiting side effects,” O’Connell explains.
Inspired by this immunotherapy research, O’Connell founded a guild at Seattle Children’s called ImmunoMomentum!
“These visionary researchers and doctors offer hope for the discovery of more potential cures for all types of childhood cancer. That’s why we have to say…ImmunoMomentum!” O’Connell said. “One of the most shocking things we learned on this journey is that there is very little funding for pediatric cancer research, despite it being the number one disease killing our children. But thanks to our generous community, Seattle Children’s is blazing a trail to a better cure, and I’m going to help them get there.”
Forming bonds through strength and resilience
O’Connell’s passion for raising awareness and funds for childhood cancer research is fueled not only from Jane’s experience, but from other cancer fighting families as well.
“While I ache deeply for these families, many of them I’ve never met personally,” O’Connell said. “They are a part of our local community of families bound together by our battle with this merciless foe, supporting each other and celebrating victories and mourning losses together.”
But one family is especially close. Their son succumbed to the same cancer that Jane had weeks shy of his fourth birthday.
It was their son that came to mind in February 2019, as O’Connell was driving Jane to Seattle Children’s to learn the results of Jane’s routine, post-treatment scans. The scans would reveal if Jane was still clear of cancer or if she had relapsed.
“I could see his startling blue eyes in my mind,” O’Connell said.
The eyes belonged to Lorne Muller.
In a passage from O’Connell’s personal blog, Our Sweet Jane, she writes about Lorne’s passing: “As I cry and cry and rage and swear, my mind goes to the reality of all they have to go through. I know all the questions they are asking themselves because I asked them myself during our dark days, when we thought we might lose Jane. How could we get her sister through this? These girls are a pair! How can we possibly live without this light in our lives? Will we remember her sweetness and how funny she is and what she smells like and the sound of her voice? And you think about mundane things too, like what do you do with her clothes, her toys? It hurts me beyond reason just to think about these questions, even now when Jane is thriving. And I know it doesn’t hold a candle to knowing this is reality.”
“As I drove, my thoughts turned to his mom, my friend, Jessica. Her pain is so deep and so vast,” O’Connell said. “I was quietly crying when the idea came to me.”
Already active in fundraising for childhood cancer research, O’Connell decided to dedicate her efforts to create a lasting legacy for her friend’s son.
That’s when The Lorne Muller Million was born.
“I can’t ease the Mullers’ pain, but I see Lorne’s sweet face and it fuels me to do everything I can to prevent other families from this devastation,” O’Connell said. “I believe the inspiration to rise to this challenge is just one of the many gifts that Lorne left for us, the ripples of which will outlive us all.”
On their way to one million
“Raising one million dollars is a remarkable challenge, but the successes achieved in Seattle Children’s trials treating blood cancers are even more remarkable,” O’Connell said. “Now trials are open to fight solid tumors like Jane’s. This is what excites me these days!”
The ImmunoMomentum! Guild recently passed $370,000 towards The Lorne Muller Million.
“Before the end of the year, I know we will surpass $400,000,” O’Connell said.
In Lorne’s memory, O’Connell looks forward to immunotherapy treatments that will be available to more kids in the future, offering families better options and better outcomes.
“Ten years from now, immunotherapy will likely be a frontline treatment for childhood blood cancers, and we’ll see the same for solid tumors like Jane’s and Lorne’s in my lifetime. This work is almost entirely funded by our generous community. My gratitude knows no bounds,” she said.
Jane started first grade this month and just days ago, her scans confirmed that she is still in remission.
“We’ve been waiting for this day for half of Jane’s life now,” O’Connell said. “Once a Wilms patient passes three years in remission, the chances of relapse go down significantly. We are so, so excited to reach this milestone!”
O’Connell continues to fight for children with cancer through ImmunoMomentum! and The Lorne Muller Million.
“This is just the beginning,” O’Connell said, “but with the visionary doctors at Seattle Children’s and the support of our generous community, I know we can truly make magic happen for these kids.”