Teen Crusade Fights Cancer
By Janna Brancolini
The girls gathered in 16-year-old Jennifer Matsui’s Torrance living room this week seem like any other group of high schools friends. They compare scars and sport injuries, and complain about one girl’s parents disabling her text-messaging until she brings home an A-filled report card.
Despite the small talk, the girls are gathered for a bigger purpose – the 15 friends are putting the final touches on an event that they hope will raise tens of thousands of dollars for pediatric cancer.
The Teens Against Cancer 2008 Variety Show will be held Friday at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center. The event features performances in dance, music and more, plus a dinner and handmade crafts sale prior to the show. All proceeds will go to pediatric cancer research.
Jennifer was inspired by the disease that struck her young cousin Derek. In 2001, when the boy was 5 years old he was diagnosed with a rare form of pediatric cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma.
In 2003, doctors informed the family that Derek was terminal, and he went to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston for experimental treatments.
Jennifer spent most of the summer of 2003 by Derek’s side in Houston before he died that August. Her family then established the Derek Hoffman Rhabdomyosacoma Research Fund at M.D. Anderson.
“We were so close. He was pretty much my brother,” she said.
Wanting to do something in Derek’s honor as he struggled with the disease, Jennifer decided to have a luncheon to raise money for cancer research. Ten of her friends helped out, and the group raised $620.
“We thought that was so much money,” Jennifer said.
They decided to call themselves Kids for Cancer, and the next year they raised $3,600. The luncheon grew to a block party that raised $5,000, and last year the friends – now Teens Against Cancer – held their first variety show and raised $12,000.
Nearly all of the group’s members – who attend South and West high schools in Torrance, Mira Costa in Manhattan Beach and Redondo Union – have lost a friend or relative to cancer. They’ve been planning the variety show since May, soliciting donations from restaurants, asking the Torrance City Council for a break in renting Armstrong Theater and making crafts to sell before the event.
“We’re here all the time,” said 16-year-old Jamie Nichols.
Jennifer described her cousin as an amazing youngster whom she still misses every day. One of the goals of the event, she said, is to keep Derek’s memory alive.
“It was hard seeing him go through chemo, but we had a good time,” she said. “I tried to make it fun because I knew how hard it was to go through treatment – especially for an 8-year-old. I read him tons of books, and told him lots of jokes.
“Chemotherapy is horrendous, and that’s what fuels us, I think. We all know what hardships come from having a friend or family member with cancer.”
Her mother, Candice Matsui, said Jennifer stayed by Derek’s side even as his condition rapidly deteriorated. He couldn’t walk and was on morphine because he was in so much pain. The morphine nauseated him, and Jennifer would hold a bucket for him when he got sick. She did crossword puzzles while he slept.
“His face didn’t look like a normal kid, but she saw the inside,” Matsui said. “She saw his strength, his fight. That’s why she does this.”
Matsui is quick to point out that her daughter is just like any 16-year-old. She sometimes plans things last minute and she has a stubborn streak.
“They’re not perfect, but they’re good kids,” said Mary Fricke, whose daughter Haley has been involved since the first luncheon. Haley asked her boss for permission to leave her lifeguarding job early so she could rush over to Tuesday’s meeting.
“It’s good for them to get out of their worlds,” Fricke said.
Most members of Teens against Cancer have never been to M.D. Anderson or met the patients who benefit from their efforts. They hope to take a trip there next summer and continue expanding upon their events.
“We were joking about it – it’s going to be adults against cancer and then grandmas against cancer,” Jennifer said.
WANT TO GO?
What: Teens Against Cancer 2008 Variety Show.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: Armstrong Theater at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, 3330 Civic Center Drive.
Cost: $15 at the door, $10 pre-sale.
Information: Call 310-781-7171 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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