ARCHIVES: Family fights childhood cancer

Medical ResearchHealthCancerFamilyChildren's Hospital of the King's DaughtersDiseases and Illnesses

Thomas Gosser loves the ocean.

Now his family hopes a new cancer treatment derived from a sea squirt - an underwater filter-feeding animal that contains a chemical compound that might be effective in battling soft tissue cancers like Thomas' Ewing's sarcoma - will save the 9-year-old's life.

It's the home front in the Gosser family's war against cancer.They're also fighting the war on two other fronts: on the national front, lobbying Congress to support the Conquer Childhood Cancer Act of 2007, and on the local front, raising money for children's cancer research.

"Somebody has to be an advocate for these children," said Thomas' father, David Gosser.

Thomas was just 6 in the spring of 2005 when he began complaining of pain in his right hip. At first doctors thought there was a simple explanation and recommended treating him with over-the-counter pain relievers.

A few months later, when the pain got so bad that Thomas began using a wheelchair, X-rays revealed and further tests confirmed that he had an inoperable tumor in his pelvis. He was immediately admitted to Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk and began a clinical trial that eventually shrank and stabilized the cancerous mass in his hip.

There had been no new evidence of disease when his family began the national war: lobbying Virginia's congressional delegation to support the Conquer Childhood Cancer Act last summer. It would endorse spending $30 million per year for the next five years - although the money would still need to be budgeted - to support pediatric cancer research.

It would also establish a national childhood cancer registry, which would make it easier for researchers to study cancer and the long-term effects of treatment, and to provide information and education services for families coping with childhood cancer.

"It's about research," said David Gosser, who is the Virginia team leader for CureSearch, organized to lobby the government on childhood cancer issues. "It's about making sure they have these drugs available so kids don't face a zero chance."

So far one member of Virginia's delegation - Sen. Jim Webb - has signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation. Sen. John Warner is reviewing the bill, but generally has supported more funding for cancer research.

Eight representatives have signed on to the House version of the bill, and Gosser said he is still hoping to add Rep. Rob Wittman, who was elected to the House late last year after former Rep. Jo Ann Davis lost her battle with breast cancer.

"I'm encouraged by the support we have been given," he said. "We need to make this a national priority, like we've made going to the moon, reaching for Mars."

But Gosser knows Congress can't be the sole source of funding for cancer research.

That's why he is waging the local battle, and today is bald like his son, whose cancer returned with a vengeance in August.

On Saturday, Gosser participated in the 8th annual St. Baldrick's event, designed to show support for cancer patients and to raise money for childhood cancer research. Participants receive donations in return for having their heads shaved.

As of Monday he had raised $19,385 - nearly twice his goal of $10,000 - making him the most successful individual fundraiser for the event, sponsored by CHKD and held at the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel. So far the event has raised more than $120,000.

On the home front, Thomas Gosser will start the sea squirt chemotherapy today. He'll be one of two local people - and just 66 in the country - participating in the experiment. If initially successful, he could receive up to 26 treatments over the next 19 months.

"When we were talking about giving Tommy the treatment, (my wife) Linda asked if it could help another child down the line," Gosser said. "The doctor said absolutely. So we have to do it for that reason. It's not just for Tommy."

If it isn't successful, Gosser said, there is just one more possible treatment left to try - another clinical trial, this one set to begin in the summer.

Gosser hopes it doesn't come to that.

"He's 9 years old," he said. "He doesn't need this."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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