Every fall, communities, parents and students are filled with exhilaration when their high school football team takes the field. We all believe, hope and dream that our team will be the state champion.
As an employee of Rockdale ISD in Rockdale, Texas, Jeff Miller is part of this excitement and plays the role of athletic director, high school football coach and father. In 2015, his son Gunner, an accomplished athlete as a high school freshman quarterback, was looking forward to playing on his father’s team until he got some life-changing news.
“Our first visit in Temple was with an orthopedic specialist at the Scott & White Roney Bone & Joint Institute,” Angel Miller, Gunner’s mother, said. “We took Gunner in for what we thought were shin splints.”
After a number of tests, what they discovered would change their lives. Gunner was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
Any cancer diagnosis immediately affects the patient, family, and social circle. In children, cancer also impacts school, the parents’ jobs, and, of course, extracurricular activities, all of which might be put on hold.
Melissa DeLario, MD, a pediatric oncologist at McLane Children’s Scott & White Hospital, understands the challenges families face with a new diagnosis, but she is often surprised by the resilience of a child as well as their parents.
“The Miller family seemed to try to focus on the positive during Gunner’s diagnosis and treatment,” Dr. DeLario said.
Staying positive was not easy. The family’s dream of watching Gunner play quarterback for his hometown was slowly fading away, especially as they stayed by his side through 17 rounds of chemotherapy over nine months at McLane Children’s Hospital.
Angel researched her son’s bone cancer and discovered there was not a lot of research or support for childhood cancers in general. That would change while her son was in the midst of limb salvage surgery for his left tibia.
“I knew I had to do something,” Angel said.
She started a simple cause using the thing that her son and husband loved the most — football.
In Texas, football is king on Friday nights. So she began contacting various school districts asking if they would “gold out” to help her in her quest to raise awareness for pediatric cancer research.
The response was overwhelming, and, within the first year, Angel with the help of friends raised more than $54,000 for pediatric cancer research. This year, she sent letters throughout the state calling for schools to join the “gold out.” More than 30 independent school districts as well as many local businesses are joining her movement in support of pediatric cancer research awareness.
While every high school is in pursuit of a championship this year. Thanks to Angel, a new winning team has been created by the high schools, businesses and communities that are teaming up to fight childhood cancer.
Only a few decades ago, a cancer diagnosis for a child was like a death sentence. Recent strides in the treatment of cancer have improved survival rates; however, most of the treatments for pediatric cancers are “passed down” from adult cancer therapies.
Dr. DeLario said that research into treatments for childhood cancer as well as discoveries in the causes of cancer has certainly come a long way.
Research is still needed to find out why children get cancer and how we can better treat it. A significant number of survivors of childhood cancer have chronic medical problems such as hypertension, kidney impairment and obesity.
The Miller family, along with many impacted by childhood cancer, hope to find more treatments, in addition to finding ways to help those who are cured to live normal, healthy and long lives.
The Miller family knows that champions are not made in a day and will continue during the football season to raise awareness by encouraging schools to “gold out” during their games.
With growing support for “Gold Out” over time, beating childhood cancer is now first and 10 for them and, they hope, for all of Texas.
You can follow their journey on Facebook.