Going bald for children’s cancer research

Amid the sounds of trimmers and cheers, thirteen people volunteered to have their heads shaved Feb. 23, 2024, to raise money for St. Baldrick's Foundation to help fund pediatric cancer research. (Jenny Fontaine / UIC)
Amid the sounds of trimmers and cheers, 13 people volunteered to have their heads shaved Feb. 23 to raise money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation to help fund pediatric cancer research. (Photos: Jenny Fontaine/UIC)

As clippers buzzed, locks of hair fell to the floor at the St. Baldrick’s Foundation annual head-shaving event at UI Health’s Children’s Hospital University of Illinois.

Thirteen people, many of them hospital staff, showed up to get their heads shaved Friday, Feb. 23, to raise money for childhood cancer research. UI Health hosts the event every year and applies for grants from St. Baldrick’s to support the UIC/Rush/Stroger Children’s Oncology Group’s clinical trials program to find cures and better treatments for childhood cancers.

A woman with a newly shaved head looks at her reflection in a mirror.
Gina Volpe, a former hospice worker who cared for children with cancer, was the sole woman to get her head shaved at the St. Baldrick’s Foundation event.

“It’s really a fun event,” said Dr. Mary Lou Schmidt, professor of pediatrics at UIC and head of the division of pediatric hematology-oncology. “Everyone thinks that childhood cancer is so sad, and every day is dark. But actually, there is an incredibly strong community and community spirit. So, on a day like today, we can dress in green. We can wear shamrocks even if we’re not Irish, and we can get our head shaved, or we can support those who are shaving their heads by donating.”

Since 2006, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation has been funding childhood cancer research at UI Health. The funding helps pay for research personnel who carry out clinical trials. The event held Friday raised just over $6,400.

“It takes a lot of people to make sure every detail of the clinical trial is done precisely, on time, as per the protocol requirements,” said Schmidt, who is also a member of the University of Illinois Cancer Center. “Almost every single childhood cancer (outcome) has improved because of the clinical trials.”

The head-shaving event also celebrated a grant for the oncology department from Do It For Dominic, started by Anna and Ernie Cairo in memory of their son, who had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Treatments have come such a long way for cancer, Anna Cairo said about the outlook for children’s cancer research.

Gina Volpe has been getting her head shaved to raise money for children’s cancer research for seven years now. On Friday, she sat patiently smiling as a stylist cleared off a strip of hair right down the middle of Volpe’s head.

As a hospice worker for 15 years, Volpe cared for children with cancer at the end of their lives. “The hair loss was one of the things that was hard for them. Especially if they were still going to school — a source of bullying,” Volpe remembered.

Simone Morrow, left, and Nathaniel Norwood hold their son, Noah, at the annual head-shaving event Feb. 23.

“I have friends who have cancer right now, so I figure any research whatsoever … any research is going to help everybody,” Volpe said.

The star of the day was 2-year-old Noah, undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma.

“He has a lot of energy, a lot of personality,” his mom, Simone Morrow, said as she watched Noah bounce from dancing with hospital staff to joining, with a pink toy ukulele, the medical students playing music in one corner.

When she brought Noah to the hospital as a baby with a stomachache, hearing his cancer diagnosis was heartbreaking, Morrow said. “I just never knew that my son and I would go through this, especially at his age.”

But today, Noah has “more ups than downs,” she said.

“It’s brave … everybody shaving their hair off in honor of all kids who have cancer. It’s very emotional,” Morrow said.

Francis Cabarilla, an operating room nurse technician at UI Health, grew out his hair for two and a half years so he could donate it for a wig for a cancer patient. After getting his long ponytail chopped off, Cabarilla held it up for the cameras.

David Dreyfus was the top fundraiser for the St. Baldrick Foundation event this year.

“My wife was diagnosed with cancer two years ago,” Cabarilla said. “Just seeing her go through all that struggle, which was really hard for us, I can only imagine how the other families are with their children. Anything I can do to help.”

David Dreyfus was the champion fundraiser for this year’s event, and Friday marked the ninth year he’s been a “shavee.” As a new grandparent, this year’s haircut had added significance.

“Just holding my grandchild in my arms and just realizing that there are grandparents that have sick kids. … I’ve been blessed with two healthy children myself and there are less fortunate people that don’t have healthy children. My heart goes out to them,” he said.

Dreyfus said his mother died of laryngeal cancer three decades ago. In the past, cancer was seen as a “death sentence,” he said. Yet now, “with technology and research like we’re raising money for … it’s not necessarily a death sentence, and hopefully they’ll be able to eliminate all kinds of cancer,” he said.

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