At age 3, Lily Gray is the youngest person ever to be the honorary race starter for the Run to Fight Children’s Cancer.
It’s also her second time at the event, which begins at 7 a.m. on Saturday, March 10 at Grand Canyon University. Last year, Lily was several months into intense treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia during the Race to Fight. Her parents, John and Lindsey Gray, assembled “Team Lily Panda,” and about 20 friends and family came to the 2017 charity event, which raises money for Children’s Cancer Network and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Lily wore a medical mask and spent much of the day in her stroller. This year, Lily is still in treatment, but she’s much more energetic. She’s back in preschool, enjoys Barbies and Disney movies and playing with friends, has a fantastic laugh, and is an affectionate big sister to 18-month-old Lincoln.
That doesn’t mean everything is completely normal for this 3-year-old and her family. Lily was diagnosed right after Lindsey Gray had gone back to work after her maternity leave with Lincoln. (She and John are both Phoenix attorneys.)
“I had just used up all my [Family and Medical Leave Act],” Lindsey says, adding her employer was “beyond understanding.”
The Grays feel blessed to have a great support network of family, friends and church members. But much of their determination to support fundraisers like Run to Fight comes from knowing that most families faced with a child’s cancer diagnosis struggle with finances, making it to appointments and generally coping with the overwhelm.
“It’s incredibly daunting [to learn a child has cancer],” Lindsey explains. “You can’t underestimate how important your village is.”
At one point, Lindsay says, they had to take Lincoln out of child care because she was catching too many illnesses that could be passed on to Lily. Even today, a fever means a mandatory emergency room visit for Lily and her parents. One time a fever led to an eight-day hospitalization at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
John says they have learned to accept offers of help, and to let people know what they need, be it meals, child care or just emotional support.
“Some days are harder than others, and you need to lean on people,” he says.
Their “Team Lily Panda” for Race to Fight has grown to about 40 people, and with two weeks to go, they had raised more than $4,000 for the cause, with a goal of $5,000. Lindsey says the other big reason they make Run to Fight an annual tradition is the fact that children’s cancer is still dramatically underfunded.
More than 15,780 children per year are diagnosed with cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. Only 4 percent of the NIH budget goes toward researching pediatric cancer, according to the Coalition Against Childhood Cancer.
Beyond that, there is not enough research on the long-term effects of treatment. The Grays have questions and concerns about future issues from cognitive to emotional effects from the chemo.
“The drugs Lily gets are from the ’70s,” Lindsey explains. “That’s unacceptable. We owe our children more.”