There’s something strikingly familiar about the cancer community and how those who’ve been touched by this collection of deadly, debilitating diseases will often come together, almost as if at a big table, to pass along love, support, gratitude and good deeds like so many bowls of mashed potatoes and slabs of homemade pie.
So it is with 9-year-old McCall Hunter and her family, friends and neighbors here in Seattle and beyond. So it is with the strangers who were moved by the fourth grader’s desire to make a difference and the Fred Hutch researchers who were inspired by the Girl Scout’s dedication and generosity.
About four years ago, the Hunters lost a beloved family friend to breast cancer. Stephanee Jane Rowbury, who died at 44, was a charming, funny and whip-smart event planner and caterer who grew up in Idaho but was a Texan at heart, the kind of woman who referred to her hair color as “chocolate cake,” the kind of woman who had a Maudie’s Tex-Mex margarita named for her, the kind of woman who flew from Austin to Seattle each and every February to celebrate her longtime friend’s daughter birthday.
To the world, she was a glamour girl and gourmet cook. To McCall, she was simply funny, loving bedtime-story-spinning Auntie Stephie.
McCall was about 5 when her aunt passed away, but last spring, after her best friend Julia’s mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, the young girl noticed how her small Queen Anne community had come together to support the family. She started thinking about how she might, in some small way, help her friend deal with her mom’s diagnosis.
“It was really hard,” McCall said. “She was really sad.”
Bright, bespectacled and compassionate beyond her years, McCall was familiar with the concept of philanthropy; she’d even earned an official Girl Scout badge for it by gathering donations for a clothing drive, handing out homemade cornbread at a homeless shelter and raising awareness about The Malala Fund, a nonprofit created by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning teen activist from Pakistan.
Now she wanted to help the people closer to her home — and her heart.
“When we heard about Julia’s mom being diagnosed with lung cancer, McCall asked, ‘How can we help?’” said her mom, Kris Hunter, who works at Microsoft with her husband, James. “I said there are a lot of ways you could help. You could raise money for cancer research.”
McCall decided to do just that, gathering ideas and logistical support from family, friends and neighbors. Sheryl Guyon, a South Lake Union “boat neighbor,” donated a lemonade stand which her own children had used over the years.
“It was kind of a pay it forward thing,” said Kris. “She told us, ‘We’ve raised a lot of money for our causes and now we’re going to pass it on to you’.”
McCall bought supplies and opened the stand for business in April 2015, selling lemonade, cookies, Halloween candy and even dog biscuits. Another girlfriend, who’d recently lost an uncle to cancer, asked if she could help and the two 9-year-olds created and hung signs, ran up and down the street to gather customers and delivered lemonade to neighbors throughout the summer.
“They learned a powerful lesson in giving and got to meet some amazing people along the way,” said her mom.
McCall also became inspired to do more.
“She was originally going to donate half the money to cancer research and use the other half to pay for expenses,” said her dad, James.
“But we decided to give it all to cancer research!” McCall interjected.
“I just noticed how much people wanted to do it,” she said, describing how strangers would stop their cars and donate when they saw where the money was going. “They would come up and say, ‘Oh, this is such a good cause’ and then tell me what happened to them or to their family members. It was really sad to hear all their stories but it was also really nice to hear they survived. I decided I wanted to give all the proceeds to cancer research.”
McCall and her friend Katie raised $250, which McCall’s parents were able to turn into $500 through a Microsoft matching program. They raised a few spirits, as well, by sharing the news with their classmate Julia and her mom, whose lung cancer prognosis has improved drastically thanks to a clinical trial offering a new targeted treatment.
“At our neighborhood block party, [Julia’s mom] came over and saw the whole lemonade stand and my mom told her why I started it and she started to cry,” said McCall, adding that she hoped to do more fundraising next summer.
“I want to make another $250 — or maybe more,” she said.
Last month, McCall, her parents, their friend Sheryl and her daughter Alina came to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to tour the labs and talk about how the funds would be used to fight cancer. While here, the Girl Scout with the heart of gold met Fred Hutch director Dr. Gary Gilliland and was able to pass along her donation in person.
“He told me that every little bit counts,” said the 9-year-old, who admitted shyly that she found the science labs especially inspiring. “I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. He asked if I wanted to come back and help fight this and I said yes.”
This Thanksgiving, McCall will be with her grandmother in Idaho, the state where her mother met Auntie Stephie, a woman taken far too soon by a diabolically complicated disease that still has no cure.
And though she, like so many others taken by cancer, will no longer sit at a table crowded with turkey and sweet potatoes and pie, her spirit, her memory, her love will carry on in the acts of kindness done in her name, in the caring communities left behind, in the circle of hands, big and small, who reach out to one another across dinner tables and research benches and homemade lemonade stands, passing along good deeds and gratitude and grand dreams — the glue that connects us all.
Who or what are you most grateful for this holiday season? Tell us on Fred Hutch's Facebook page.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she also writes the breast cancer blog doublewhammied.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solid tumors, such as those of the breast and prostate, are the focus of Solid Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers.