In 2011, 7-year-old Erik Sutter lost his hair. It was a side effect of the treatment he was receiving to fight acute lymphoblastic leukemia. By the following spring, his hair had grown back, but he decided to shave it off again. "Some of his classmates asked, 'Why would you do that?'" says Erik's mom, Helen. Soon, some of those classmates were shaving their heads, too, after Erik explained he was going to "brave the shave" to raise money for childhood cancer research. Today, Erik and his Fearless Friends are regulars at the annual St. Baldrick's Head Shaving Event in Rochester. It's one of more than 12,000 similar events held around the country each year.
"St. Baldrick's is an awesome, awesome organization," says Carola Arndt, M.D., a pediatric oncologist and cancer researcher at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. She says the money raised by Erik and others — more than $200 million since the St. Baldrick's Foundation was established in 2005 — plays an important role in funding the clinical trials that may one day lead to a cure for childhood cancer. "The money doesn't just go someplace in the sky," Dr. Arndt says. "It helps fund local research."
And the events don't just raise money. They also raise awareness. "When you shave your head, you're truly committed," says Diane Mack, who coordinates the Rochester event. Diane, a lab technician at Mayo Clinic, speaks from experience. She's also a "shavee," and says it's "emotional getting your head shaved. It takes your heart right out of you to think about what these kids go through."
"Emotional" is also the word Helen Sutter uses when she describes the first St. Baldrick's event she and her family attended. Dr. Arndt had mentioned the event to the family at one of Erik's appointments, and Erik's dad, Ron, decided to participate. "My husband had tears streaming down his face while he was being shaved," says Helen, who admits she may have shed a few tears herself that day. "It really drives home what your child is going through. It made Erik's treatment more personal."
More than $360,000 has been raised at the Rochester event since it began in 2006. Erik — who hopes to become a nurse someday to "help sick kids" — has raised $3,000. And he's planning to add to that total at the 2017 event next May.
Mack tells the Rochester Post-Bulletin that the event has "turned into a family thing" with "lots of the same people" coming "year after year." Among them are the members of team Jack Attack, a group of family and friends who gather to remember Jackson Schneider, who passed away in 2009. He was just 8 years old. "We do this every year in his memory," Jackson's mom, MariClair, told the Post-Bulletin.
To learn how you can help make cancer — not kids — a memory, visit the St. Baldrick's website. Then, you can leave a comment below before you share this story with others using the social media tools atop this page.