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St. Jude Run/Walk: More Than a Race


Article by Chelsey Modde

Photography by St. Jude and The Christiansen Family

Some things are just harder than others -- The Christiansen family knows this firsthand.  

Their daughter, Avery, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2009.

She was just 11 months old.

“I was a young, first time Mom with little to no exposure with a cancer diagnosis,” shared Jenn Christiansen, Avery’s mom.  “Our first question was "Okay, so what are we going to do to fix it?". We didn't cry, we didn't freak out. We just were shocked.  But clearly assumed there was a solution. We quickly learned that wasn't the case.”

She had Medulloblastoma, which carried a five-year survival rate of just 25%.  She relapsed not once, but twice within those first three years.

Childhood cancer is a unique kind of awful. It’s a stomach-dropping, heart-wrenching reality for parents, one made even harder since the Christiansen's have no family nearby their Shawnee, KS home. 

The weeks following their baby’s diagnosis were spent asking questions. However, when the doctors couldn’t provide survival rate data of kids under three who had been treated using the plan they had developed, Jenn asked a friend to help her start looking for options outside Kansas City. 

That’s when the power of community brought her to St. Jude.

“We found another KC family's story on the St. Jude website, a baby with a brain tumor, and reached out to the mom,” she said. “The mom called me at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night and gave me everything I needed to know about St. Jude and encouraged me to email the head of the Neuro Oncology team. He responded at 4 a.m. - not even four hours after I sent my email. We knew without a doubt that this was the kind of doctor we wanted on our team.” 

If you’re not familiar with St. Jude, here are some fast facts: It’s a research hospital, meaning the doctors try and learn every possible thing they can about the diseases. They also freely share their discoveries, so doctors worldwide can use the knowledge to save more children – which is actually not the norm. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20% to more than 80% since it opened more than 50 years ago.  

Families also never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food—because they believe if you’ve ended up within their halls, the last thing you should have to worry about are financial stressors. 

“They gave us a home, encouragement, distraction, and hope -- they gave us a chance, no matter how small it was. They made us part of the team, part of the solution, drivers in the car - not just passengers. There is nothing worse than being helpless when it comes to your child. St. Jude gave us a chance to be part of it all -  knowing that the destination isn't always as important as the journey to get there.”

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Fortunately, it’s a journey they’re still on. Defying odds, Avery is now 11. 

“Being part of [St. Jude] gave us so much in terms of memories that even if we hadn't come out the other side with Avery in tow, we would have still had a lot of amazing memories to hold onto. As luck would have it, we have had eight additional years of crazy memories to tack onto her journey with us and we are looking forward to so many more.”  

For the research to continue, and to keep St. Jude free for patients, the hospital relies heavily on fundraisers – and next month is a big one. Each September, St. Jude supporters lace up for the St. Jude Kansas City Walk/Run – an event that means much more than dollars raised. 

“The Walk represents an opportunity to stand behind those kids and tell them - we are still fighting for you. We are still standing with you. To support the special type of people it takes to run a facility like St Jude -- the ones that always have a smile on their faces, are always asking to help and no matter what the situation, show up when it gets hard. Not all of us can do that.” 

The annual event is in step with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and even though this year the September 26 St. Jude Walk/Run has moved to an online format, the team at the hospital is committed to still making it a special and memorable event. (Plus, now friends and family across the country can tune in to whichever local event they feel most connected to.)

“This is for everyone -- not just the kids in their trials,” Christiansen shared. “It’s about the future generations the grandchildren I hope to have someday. The things they know now that they didn't fully understand when Avery was diagnosed is helping kids all over the world. It doesn't stay in Memphis. It doesn't stay in the US. It impacts the world. 

If you’d like to play a part in the impact, you can visit the St. Jude website to register for the event or to make a donation. You can also find up-to-date information and announcements in the St. Jude Walk/Run app.