James’ Wingman Program
TOKC's James' Wingman Program
8 years ago, February 17th, 2014, only a few months before he would turn 20 years old, a local young man known fondly as everyone’s best friend, our inspiration, and my younger brother, James A. died of a form of pediatric bone cancer called Osteosarcoma. Diagnosed shortly after his 13th birthday, James dedicated his life in the years that would follow to raising awareness for pediatric cancers, fundraising to support groundbreaking research, and making the most of his moments to have a positive impact on the lives of kids with cancer, just like him, and families like ours. Much of that work James did through the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation (TOKC), which we co-founded in 2010 to raise awareness for pediatric cancer, raise funds for innovative pediatric cancer research, and to bring some joy to the daily lives of kids with cancer. James understood that sometimes it takes someone with a terrible disease and tragic pending outcome who is willing to stand up in front of a group of people to remind them – to remind us – why the work TOKC does is so important to the future of children with cancer, their families, and our communities.
In the months after his death, as my parents and I and my fellow TOKC Board Members discussed how we were going to move forward without our James, it became clear that James’ legacy wasn’t just TOKC. It was the kids, just like him, whose lives had been forever changed by having cancer and were made somewhat better by the work TOKC was doing. To his friends, James was known as a fantastic wingman, but what many didn’t know was he had the scars to go with the name. A year after James was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, his cancer had spread to his lungs, and over the course of the next several years, he would require multiple surgeries on both of his lungs to remove these tumors. His thoracic surgeon at M.D. Anderson, Dr. Ara Vaporciyan, performs this operation using an incision that ultimately leaves a scar resembling an angel wing on patients’ backs. It was a known thing on the pediatric cancer floors that patients would talk about while walking their laps around nurses’ stations or using their incentive spirometers to improve their lung capacities. “Oh, you have one wing? Check this out! I have two!”
It was in the spirit of James’ scars and his reputation for being a great wingman that TOKC’s James’ Wingman program was born. The idea was to choose a child with cancer to serve as a living reminder of the importance of the work TOKC is doing to bring about an end to pediatric cancer. Every year, a different wingman is chosen, and he or she and their families are invited to join us at all of our TOKC events. Many of you have met our wingmen to date:
– Hannah Meeson, 2014 – Medulloblastoma (pediatric brain tumor)
– Robbie Lee, 2015 – Pediatric Melanoma
– Myles Anderwald, 2016 – Osteosarcoma
– Andrew Ross, 2017 – Adult Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor
– Emma Turner, 2018 – Spindle Cell Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma
– Asher Cochran, 2019 – 2020 – Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma of the Eye
– Julian Galloway, 2021 – Medulloblastoma (pediatric brain tumor)
Against all the odds, while they each face different challenges and long-term effects of their varying treatments, all of our James’ Wingmen are still alive and thriving. To this day, only 4% of federal cancer research funding goes to fund pediatric cancer research. As many of you know, Texas is unique in that it has its own special cancer research fund paid for by our taxpayers called CPRIT – The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. When it was formed, CPRIT focused mainly on funding research for adult cancers, but, in 2012, James had the opportunity to speak to CPRIT and to plead the case for children with cancer. He told them, “I suppose none of you have looked into the face of a doctor, who has cared for you since you were a kid, who wants nothing more than to save your life and instead has to tell you that you have no more options and you need to go enjoy the rest of the life you have left. If you could look into the face of that doctor and see that sadness and despair, then you would fund pediatric cancer research.” It was because of James’ speech that day that CPRIT named pediatric cancer as one of its funding priorities, and now gives 11% of its funds to innovative pediatric cancer research. That is almost 3 times the national average.
Since its inception, TOKC has raised over $4 million for innovative pediatric cancer research, all of which has been matched by the institutions we work with for a total of over $8 million! We continue to support groundbreaking pediatric cancer research, including a Phase 2 drug trial to treat Osteosarcoma with lung metastasis at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital and truly novel T-CAR cell immunotherapy research at Texas Children’s Hospital. TOKC has pledged $1 million to each of these projects with those funds being matched by their respective institutions for a total of an additional $4 million when those projects are completed. To date, we are halfway to meeting each of those goals.
Even to this day, I don’t know how someone who, from such a young age, knowing he was going to die, still managed to stand up in front of all of us at fundraisers around town, at TOKC events and even at his high school graduation with such hope for a future where kids just like him would no longer have to face the horrors of pediatric cancer. But it is that strength, that drive, and that hope that keeps all of us working very hard so that one day James’ dream can become a reality and we can truly say pediatric cancer stopped with him.
To donate to TOKC, please click here.
Dr. Mecklin Ragan
Co-Founder Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation