Going bald for good cause

Volunteers shave heads, raise cancer research money

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

Marcus Yamada, 7, and Max Dye, 9, are pals. The boys spent their early childhood playing together at the same day care. Every Saturday for the past three years, they got together to bowl. So when doctors diagnosed Marcus with a rare form of leukemia two weeks ago, Max decided to help his friend by shaving his head.

This Saturday, Max will leave the St. Baldrick's fundraising event with a head shorn of its hair. Max's goal is to gather $1,000 in donations to help Marcus and other children battle cancer. The event will take place at the Soldotna Sports Center from 6 to 10 p.m. Local hairstylists and barbers will shave volunteers' heads while volunteers gather pledges from friends, family and community members.

"Max said he wanted to do it, then he got really nervous," said Jennifer Dye, Max's mother. She said Max thought that by shaving his head, he would be bald for life. "(He said,) 'It will be OK if I'm bald forever because it will help kids like Marcus.'"

After crippling headaches and blood-colored freckles sent him to the Dena'ina Health Clinic in Kenai two weeks ago, Marcus currently lies in a bed at Seattle Children's Hospital unable to even leave the ward. Charlie Yamada, Marcus' mother, said doctors diagnosed her son with promyelocytic leukemia, a rare form that requires a full year of cancer treatment including a six-month stay in Seattle.

Between 50 and 60 percent of children diagnosed with this form recover, she said.

One good thing about having a disease that's so rare, Yamada said, is it responds to a very specific drug. Marcus currently takes a drug known as all-trans retinoic acid. This drug tricks the leukemia cells into growing to maturity before they're able to reproduce. This makes it easier for chemotherapy to eradicate the existing cells, Yamada said.

"The treatment is very aggressive and very intense," Yamada said. Marcus just finished his first round of cancer treatment, totally diminishing his red and white blood cells as well as his platelets. "They keep him in here under complete observation until his (blood counts) come back up to acceptable levels," she said.

Because the chemotherapy completely eradicated Marcus' immune system, his mother says he can't even leave the ward. He's allowed to have comfort food from home, including Spam musubi, a sushi made with Spam fried in teriyaki sauce, but everything has to be completely cooked and scrubbed clean.

"To have his dad cook him something from home, even though it might be a real bummer we're here, it's going to be OK," Yamada said. "We're going to help him through it."

Yamada said she's touched that Max is so concerned for Marcus and other kids with cancer that he's willing to shave his head. The Yamadas have known the Dyes for a number of years, she said, and that's one of the sweetest and most courageous things Max could do for Marcus.

"You gotta love kids, man. They really are sweet," she said.

Last year's St. Baldrick's event in Soldotna raised $18,000, said event coordinator Ben Simonds, a firefighter and paramedic for Central Emergency Services. This year's goal is $20,000 and with $10,653, they're more than halfway there. St. Baldrick's is a nationwide fundraising event that raised just under $14 million last year. This year, Simonds said, the organization's nationwide goal is $18 million. Anyone who is interested in being shaved or who wants to donate money can visit www.stbaldricks.org.

"Anybody can go sign up and create a team," Simonds said. "They just have to show up on Saturday."

St. Baldrick's volunteers gather pledges from friends, family members and businesses and shave their heads in solidarity with children with cancer. Simonds said St. Baldrick's is the largest volunteer-driven fundraising event for cancer with four in Alaska alone. Last year, the St. Baldrick's events raised $80,000 statewide.

"People set goals to have their heads shaved. You try to get donations to reach that (goal) and you shave your head," Simonds said. "Last year some of the money we collected was given to (local) families to assist them in travel needs."

Simonds said he first heard about St. Baldrick's when he worked at a fire department in Fairbanks during college. He talked about it to fellow event coordinator Brian Heath and thought it would be a great way for Central Emergency Services to get involved with the community and help kids with cancer.

Not only are CES firefighters getting their heads shaved, Simonds said members of the Soldotna and Kenai police departments are getting shaved as well as firefighters with the Kenai and Nikiski fire departments.

"The fun thing with the Kenai Fire Department, each of their shifts created their own team as a way to challenge other shifts (and) bring in more money," he said. "Brian Heath and myself brought the idea forward, and local departments, both police and fire, have been instrumental for the groundwork of this event," he said.

Cpt. James Dye of the Kenai Fire Department said he and Max will shave their heads together. He said so far Max has raised approximately $175, but they plan go gather more pledges this week. Even though this is his first year, Dye said he also wants to raise $1,000, while his shift's goal is $2,500.

"It's a great event," he said. "(We're) looking forward to it."

Other than bowling, Max says he likes to play soccer with Marcus. Thanks to Marcus' Web site at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/marcusyamada, Max can keep posted on Marcus' progress and send e-mails to his friend.

"I hope he feels better," Max said.

"The whole community seems to be rallying around him," Jennifer Dye said. "We miss him a lot."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.

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