September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and we are highlighting the story of Joy and Tait Cruse, who lost their 8-year-old son, Connor, to cancer after a valiant four-year battle. The Cruses, a longtime Prestonwood family, have raised more than $5 million toward childhood cancer research through their foundation TeamConnor Childhood Cancer Foundation.
When their oldest son, Connor, was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma cancer at the age of 4 and given just months to live, Joy and Tait Cruse took him to some of the best hospitals in the country, desperate for a treatment that could help.
“We started the treatment in Dallas,” Joy said, “but we went all over. And it was so moving to see all these kids, just like Connor, brave and resilient. They didn’t know that they should be tired. It’s just amazing—they were awe inspiring. The hospitals are filled with them. And Tait and I thought we needed to do something.”
“Kids are the most helpless group in society,” she said, “so it’s up to us adults to help. We looked at each other and we said, ‘How do we do this?’”
And TeamConnor Childhood Cancer Foundation was born.
Connor fought a fierce four-year battle against an unrelenting cancer, but passed away a few weeks after he completed the second grade at Prestonwood Christian Academy.
Over those four years, Connor spent more than 220 nights in the hospital, received more than 40 blood transfusions, two dozen platelet transfusions, 25 rounds of chemo, 14 surgeries, two bone marrow transplants, and countless medical procedures in his fight for life.
Shortly after Connor was diagnosed, Tait and Joy talked with a friend in Connecticut, Matt Russo, who had started a campaign to raise money for charity each year.
“He said, ‘I want to do it for Connor this year,’” Joy recalled, “and Connor and Tait went to that, the first Reach the Beach benefit up in the Hamptons. He said, ‘Let’s use this run to raise money for childhood cancer.’
“After that, we started TeamConnor,” Joy said.
The Cruses have raised more than $5 million toward pediatric cancer research since its founding in 2008, and they remain steadfast in their drive to raise as much as they can to help other children. But it can be a struggle.
“The government doesn’t put much of a focus on it,” Joy said. Only about three percent of the money used for cancer research is allocated to childhood cancers. And most cancer drugs are for adults, not children.
“They sometimes use adult cancer drugs on the kids,” she said. “We’re working with the hospitals but we’re also working with the drug companies. Sometimes TeamConnor will give money directly to the drug companies if there’s a drug that seems to work for children.”
She sees more attention devoted to childhood cancers, and more money, “but it doesn’t begin to compare to Susan B. Komen and breast cancer research. You even see NFL players wearing pink.
“The awareness went from ‘You don’t talk about breast cancer’ to seeing it on T-shirts now,” Joy said. “That’s my goal for childhood cancers. Working together can really expand our efforts and grow the support.
“One out of 285 children will be diagnosed with cancer by age 20, and 300,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year,” she said. “In the U.S., 48 children are diagnosed a day. Cancer kills more kids than asthma or muscular dystrophy. But there’s only been one new drug in the last 20 years specifically for childhood cancer.”
Joy said that they could eventually get to the point where their other children will take over and be on the board directors of the foundation.
“But what I’d really love to see,” Joy said, “is a cure for childhood cancer, and we can just close our doors.”
Connor would have turned 18 next month, and would have been experiencing his senior year at PCA.
His younger brother, Carson, is a junior at PCA, and with each milestone he reaches, Joy and Tait can’t help but think what Connor missed.
“We missed (the seniors’) first homecoming, and when I see his classmates driving now, I’m like, ‘My gosh!’ Then I think about pictures from their first prom, then graduation when they pass the baton,” she said.
“I think that’s why the senior year is the hardest. PCA does a great job of honoring the seniors, so there will be a lot of memories and events that I’ll see and he won’t be there.
“This is the year of the painful ‘what if’s,’” she said.
But the Cruses are touched by how the school has never forgotten their son.
When he was 4, Connor was invited by a senior captain of the PCA Lions football team Tim Flores (himself a survivor of childhood cancer) to be part of the team one game night in 2005. The team prayed for him and included him in the locker room and he walked to midfield with Tim for the coin toss. Today, a plaque at Lions Stadium honors Connor and his courage in his fight.
The plaque includes Connor’s motto during his fierce four-year battle with cancer: “Have courage and believe in Jesus Christ.”
“I love that it’s there,” Joy said.
During their freshmen year, classmates of Connor wore green (Connor’s favorite color) ribbons on their mums and garters in remembrance of their friend. And before beginning their senior year, a few PCA boys took a group picture as they held a portrait of their friend Connor.
They have never forgotten him.
Logan Doyle, one of Connor’s closest friends, said he and the other PCA senior boys wanted to honor Connor’s life and legacy in their portrait.
“Connor is not and will never be forgotten,” Logan said. “The class of 2019 and all those who interacted with Connor will remember him for the rest of our lives, and we will pass on the story of his strength to future generations.
“His story is not over, and including him in our senior picture was our small way of showing that we still love and remember our friend.”
Published: Sept. 26, 2018
Author: Michael Young
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