Fund Helps Families Of Children Battling Cancer

UNION COUNTY—When Cristina Cooke took her two-year-old son Xavier to the doctor’s office, she thought he had another ear infection—or maybe it was his molars.

Looking back on that day two years ago, the Westfield mother remembers thinking how she would be done with the doctor’s visit and on her way to her Manhattan office by noon.

The last thing Cooke expected to learn that day was her son had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or that she would not be going back to work because of all that would be involved with Xavier’s cancer treatments.

It is a one-two punch that Ann Stocknoff sees all too often. Stocknoff is a social worker at the Valerie Fund Children’s Centers at Overlook Hospital in Summit and Morristown Memorial Hospital.

The economic fallout is also why Stocknoff is thankful that a special fund was created earlier this year to help families like the Cookes.

Last September, at Nomahegan Park in Cranford, the Rock On! Walkathon & 5K Rock N’ Run raised $80,000. The funds were split between the Love Hope Strength Foundation and The Valerie Fund, which placed the money in a special fund available to families utilizing the Valerie Center at Overlook, one of seven Valerie Centers scattered across northern and central Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia.

To date, about 15 families were helped through the fund, with financial assistance going towards mortgage payments, property taxes, utility bills and medicine.

To stretch the money, the assistance is capped at $2,000 per family.  But the need is so great that the fund will be depleted long before year’s end, Stocknoff said.

While cancer doesn’t discriminate, striking rich and poor families alike, in many families where both parents are working and both salaries are needed to pay the bills, when one income is lost, financial problems ultimately follow, she said, adding that the situation is even worse for single mothers.

Many of the medical treatments stretch out over years, with some medications making youngsters more susceptible to infection, resulting in multiple hospitalizations.

“We’re talking about a life-altering catastrophic medical experience,” Stocknoff said.  “There is no quick fix.”

If there is one bright side, the mortality rate for children’s cancers is low and as the cancers are brought under control, the children undergoing treatment start to thrive again. The challenge is to find a regimen with minimal side effects.

“Chemotherapy is nasty,” Stocknoff said, noting that the powerful drugs can cause bladder damage, secondary malignancies, and other unintended complications.

Even when families have health insurance, there are limits and all the uncovered expenses just add to the shortfall when a parent stops working.

“People come in and sometimes they completely breakdown,” Stocknoff said. “It makes a huge difference to have a $2,000 reprieve. It’s a lot of money when you’re down an income.”

“Getting a month relief from the mortgage was huge,” said Cooke, who hopes to participate in this year’s Union County fundraiser. A walkathon and 5K run will once again kick off the county’s  Musicfest weekend on Sept. 12-13.

Over at the Valerie Fund offices in Maplewood—the fund provides support for children with cancer and blood disorders at the seven Valerie Centers—Executive Director Barry Kirschner said the Musicfest fundraiser is a “godsend,” not only because of the money raised, but also “because we don’t have to staff it.”

With the Valerie Centers handling 35,000 patient visits annually, the fund coordinates golf outings and walkathons throughout the year to raise needed funds. So to have an event like Musicfest “frees us up for our own events,” Kirschner said.

“The association with Union County has been nothing but wonderful,” he said. “We are thrilled to be the beneficiaries of this.”

Meanwhile, Xavier, now two years into his cancer treatments and another year-and-a-half to go, is taking it all in stride.

“The onset was very scary,” Cooke said recalling her son’s initial diagnosis. “But Xavier has tolerated everything very well.  None of this seems unusual to him.”

“We’ve been so lucky in so many ways,” she said.

Four-year-old Xavier Cooke was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia two years ago.  On the days the Westfield youngster receives his chemotherapy, his blood is first drawn and analyzed to make sure he should receive the cancer therapy.

Sharing a laugh as four-year-old Xavier Cooke describes some of his favorite television cartoon characters are Ann Stocknoff, (left) a social worker at the Valerie Fund Children’s Center at Overlook Hospital, and Xavier’s mom, Cristina Cooke. The Westfield youngster was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia two years ago.

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