In 2002, Richard Kligler heard four words that would change his life forever: “Your child has cancer.” His son, Sean, was diagnosed with a Stage IV cancer – cancer that has spread beyond its origin into other parts of the body – when he was just five-years-old. Sean underwent seven months of intensive chemotherapy, open chest surgery and 22 days of radiation therapy. “I remember every minute of that journey,” recalls Kligler. After a long and arduous battle, his son is now 19 years old and healthy. The only remnant of his cancer is a long scar across his chest. Such cases of childhood cancer are not uncommon. Nowhere are children immune to cancer and millions are diagnosed annually. In Hong Kong alone, on average, 200 children are diagnosed with cancer each year. “Five children each month will die from this dreaded disease in Hong Kong,” Kligler tells us, “and that’s five too many, as I see it.”
“After witnessing what Sean endured during his battle with cancer and knowing children in the hospital where Sean was treated who lost their war, I decided to get involved with the St Baldrick’s Foundation,” says Kligler of his decision to establish the global charity’s Hong Kong branch. “I decided I would not rest until childhood cancer was treated like the common cold.”
St Baldrick’s is a charity committed to funding the most promising research aimed at finding cures for childhood cancers. Founded in 2000 by three New York businessmen, the charity’s first event was held on St Patrick’s Day in an Irish pub in Manhattan. At St Baldrick’s events, volunteers shave their heads in solidarity with cancer patients who lose their hair during treatment. Friends, family and colleagues donate in support of the volunteers and the money raised goes towards financing the foundation’s research. Over the last 16 years, the charity has expanded globally and hosted more than 12,000 events with more than US$178 million distributed in research grants.
After participating in a St Baldrick’s fundraiser in New York, Kligler relocated to Hong Kong with his family in 2005 and decided to bring the event with him. That same year he formed an international partnership between the St Baldrick’s Foundation and the Children’s Cancer Foundation in Hong Kong. The CCF remains the beneficiary of funds raised and seeks out childhood cancer research projects conducted by universities, hospitals and research organisations. Since hosting Hong Kong’s first event in 2006, Kligler has organised 33 more and seen 1,400 volunteers go bald. More than $23.8 million has been raised in the city and 19 childhood cancer research projects funded thanks to his efforts.
Great strides have been made by research funded in Hong Kong with the help of St Baldrick’s events. In particular, Kligler recalls a medical breakthrough relating to acute lymphoblastic leukaemia investigated between 2008 and 2012: “Basically, this project developed a molecular diagnosis [allowing] one leukaemia cell in 10,000 normal cells to be identified.” This project allowed paediatric oncologists to design specific treatment to children based on their concentration of cancer cells, increasing their life expectancy.
Though focused on a sober topic, St Baldrick’s events are not excessively solemn. Kligler describes them as ‘a great time for a great cause’. He continues: “Even though it’s a serious subject, it’s important for the event to be festive and for people to have a fun and entertaining time.” The main speaker always has a big personality and several have been stand up comedians. Hairstylists often give the shavees crazy hairstyles, from bowl cuts to mohawks, before the rest is shaved off.
Since more adults than children are diagnosed with cancer, governments and foundations often focus on funding research for adults. However, in recent decades, rates of childhood cancer have risen, so there’s more urgency than ever to find a cure. “There is currently a large financial gap to be filled to fund childhood cancer research,” says Kligler. “In the US,” he continues, “only four percent of government funding is dedicated to childhood cancer research.” As determined as he was in 2002 to see the end of cancer, Kligler continues to work at getting businesses and individuals to pledge donations and to do their bit alongside government health services. He has only one aim in mind: “I look forward to the day I won’t need to organise any more events for childhood cancer.” Jill Ann
For more information on St Baldrick’s Foundation, visit stbaldricks.org.