Photographs by William Taufic.
In the summer of 2004, Brent McCreesh appeared to be a healthy two-year-old. In September, he came down with a fever. Examining the lethargic toddler, Brent’s pediatrician suspected more than the flu and ordered blood work. By afternoon, Dana, pregnant at the time, and Brent were in the ER at Yale.
Seven hours later, an initial diagnosis of pneumonia was revised to neuroblastoma, a cancer of the central nervous system. As is often the case in toddlers who can’t describe their pain, Brent’s was Stage 4. “He had four tumors in his abdomen and a little in his bone marrow,” explains Dana. The McCreeshes would be in and out of the hospital for more than two years, as Brent endured six rounds of chemo, a dozen surgeries, hundreds of blood transfusions, radiation and stem cell transplants.
The nonprofit TeamBrent evolved from people looking for ways to support the longtime Southport residents. The family was receiving seventy phone calls a day from friends trying to help. Several women started a website where people could go to follow Brent’s progress, and Dana began posting links to charities she liked.
“One friend saw the link to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation (a charity that funds childhood cancer research) and asked about shaving his head for Brent,” says Dana. “A few more friends heard and wanted to join in but also wanted my husband, Mike, to do it.” Mike was game but wasn’t sure his boss at Goldman Sachs would approve. He did and insisted on shaving his head too.
That first year, twenty-three people shaved their heads for Brent at a bar in Stamford and raised $87,000 for St. Baldrick’s. A decade later the TeamBrent head-shaving event is held at venues like Harbor Yard to accommodate hundreds of participants, and TeamBrent has raised a total of $3.4 million for St. Baldrick’s. “Now we see kids who have shaved their heads for over half their life,” says Dana. “They are growing up knowing they have the power to make a difference. My kids think every person in the entire world helps other people, because that’s all they know.”
TeamBrent’s participation in the PanMassachusetts Challenge (PMC) began in a similar fashion. A friend wanted Mike to join him for the bike-a-thon, the largest athletic fundraising event in the country. “How far is it?” The answer—192 miles—didn’t scare off Mike, and nine friends joined him. Since then, from PMC and St. Baldrick’s combined, TeamBrent has raised $7.3 million for research fellowships, various grants to help children with cancer and, in particular, the Neuroblastoma Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“We have made great strides in finding treatments for neuroblastoma,” comments Dr. Lisa Diller, clinical director of Pediatric Oncology. “TeamBrent has made it possible for Dana-Farber and Boston Children’s to lead cutting-edge research and to provide comprehensive care to patients.”
Trials are underway for a vaccine to prevent neuroblastoma relapse, and the survival rate for a case like Brent’s has jumped from 15 to 20 percent to 45 to 60 percent.
Brent, now a healthy and happy sixth grader, has been cancer free for over nine years. He doesn’t remember his own battle but participates in TeamBrent events, because, he says, “I want to help other kids.”