Coast to Coast to Cure Childhood Cancers: A Family Love Story

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MSK medical oncologist William Tap with Julian Fraser's family

Dr. Tap (in left image, wearing grey) joined the Fraser family at the kick-off event in mid-August. “To this day, Julian remains a constant beacon of hope and strength for everyone he touched at MSK,” says Dr. Tap.

It’s rare to meet someone who makes you want to be a better person. Cristy and Alec Fraser are those people — they are inspiring in an extraordinary and life-changing way.

On August 15, the Frasers were part of a segment on Good Morning America and then rode their bikes from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, to an event at St. Catherine’s Park across from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

That was the beginning of their cross-country bike ride to Santa Clara University in California to raise money and awareness for Cycle for Survival. Cycle for Survival began in 2007 with founding partner Equinox, to raise funds for rare cancer research led by MSK.

If all goes well, the Frasers expect to complete their journey, which they’ve dubbed Coast to Coast to Cure Childhood Cancer, by cruising onto the Santa Clara campus on October 21 to speak at the Julian Fraser Water Polo Tournament. The tournament was recently named in honor of their son Julian, a student at Santa Clara and a patient at MSK, who died in 2017.

“Julian would have turned 25 this September — that’s part of the reason we’re doing this now,” says Alec, Julian’s father and a current MSK patient who will be pedaling 4,000-plus miles through 17 states with his friend and cycling partner, Jamie Meehan. Cristy, Julian’s mom and an active MSK volunteer, will be following in a minivan featuring the Cycle for Survival logo and a QR code to facilitate donations on the road. Along the way, they hope to generate media coverage about their undertaking and build awareness of pediatric cancers.

“Julian had an epic battle with cancer, and we want to do something epic in his memory,” says Alec.

“He brought people together,” Cristy adds. “That’s what we hope to do with this ride.”

Cycle for Survival Raises $285 Million in 15 Years
With founding partner Equinox, Cycle for Survival surpasses $285 million raised since 2007; every dollar funds rare cancer research led by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

A Family Cancer

Tall, strong, and handsome, Julian was a beloved figure in the Connecticut community where he grew up. He was well-known for his athleticism in the pool, where he swam competitively and played water polo, and his kind heart. He was a classic “good guy” — one day defending a fellow student who was being bullied, and the next, taking lifesaving action to help his teammate who had an epileptic seizure. Julian made life better for those around him.

In 2016, Julian was 19 years old and a sophomore at Santa Clara University when he experienced pain in his legs during water polo practice. At first, he tried stretching exercises, but went to a doctor in Santa Clara when the pain got worse. The doctor referred him to John Healey, a surgeon and Chief of MSK’s Orthopedic Service, who specializes in pediatric sarcomas. Dr. Healey determined that Julian had osteosarcoma, the most common type of bone cancer among children, teens, and young adults. Unfortunately, Julian’s disease had already spread to multiple parts of his body, including his lungs and spine.

Incredibly, around the same time of Julian’s diagnosis, Alec was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a form of soft tissue sarcoma that causes tumors to grow in the muscle tissue that lines hollow parts of the body, such as the bladder and stomach. Leiomyosarcoma often begins in the abdomen, which is where Alec had been having persistent pain. He was initially diagnosed at Weill Cornell Medical Center and had surgery there to remove a tumor from his spermatic cord.

Julian Fraser with his brothers on a snowy mountain

Julian’s older brothers, shown here on either side of him, will join the last leg of the cycling trip in California.

Soon after, Alec also had two melanoma tumors removed — one at Yale Cancer Center and the other at MSK by Samuel Singer, a surgical oncologist and Chief of the Gastric and Mixed Tumor Service. He was subsequently evaluated and followed by Michael Postow, Chief of the Melanoma Service, and Michael Marchetti of the Dermatology Service.

At that point, Alec and Julian were referred to Michael Walsh, a geneticist and pediatric oncologist at MSK, for genetic testing. Testing revealed that they both carried the gene for Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS), a rare hereditary predisposition to multiple cancer types. Soft tissue sarcoma and osteosarcoma, which are the cancers Alec and Julian had, are two of the cancers most closely associated with LFS.

Armed with this new information, the treatment team for both father and son expanded to include William Tap, Chief of the Sarcoma Medical Oncology Service at MSK, and a renowned expert in soft tissue and bone sarcoma, who quickly became an honorary member of the Fraser family.

“Julian and I were hospitalized at the same time. We both had top-notch care and really connected with our care teams,” says Alec. “But Julian had a special bond with Dr. Tap.”

The feeling was mutual. “To this day, Julian remains a constant beacon of hope and strength for everyone he touched at MSK,” says Dr. Tap. “He underwent extensive therapy and never wavered. I am so thankful for what Alec, Cristy, Jamie and all their supporters are doing to help eradicate these horrific diseases.”

Ultimately, despite the valiant efforts of his care team, Julian died on February 21, 2017, at the age of 20 — ten months after his diagnosis.

“I take inspiration from Julian,” says Alec. “He showed such incredible courage.”

Blue van with Coast to Cost Cycle to Cure Childhood Cancer written on the side

The Frasers’ “Coast to Coast to Cure Childhood Cancer” minivan.

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Team Julian

Julian’s courage continues to motivate others. Since Julian and Alec’s diagnoses, the Frasers and their friends have been active supporters of Cycle for Survival. They established “Team Julian” in 2016 and have participated in Cycle for Survival’s annual team cycling events every year since, raising more than $500,000. As Cristy points out, the research supported by Cycle for Survival benefits cancer patients around the world, as researchers share what they learn, and new therapies are developed.

Following family-wide genetic testing, the Frasers learned that another son also has Li-Fraumeni syndrome. He and Alec are now under the care of Dr. Walsh and MSK’s Clinical Genetics Service (CGS). Through the CGS, Alec and his son receive annual brain and body scans to look for early signs of cancer when it is most treatable.

“It has been a privilege to be part of the Fraser family care team,” says Dr. Walsh. “The Frasers have endured so much and are taking every opportunity to stay ahead of cancer by following a personalized screening plan.”

“Cancer will always be in our lives,” says Cristy. But it doesn’t define them.

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Helping Wherever They Can

After they lost Julian, Cristy felt powerless. She wanted to regain some control in her life and help others, supporting them in ways she could no longer support her son. She started volunteering at MSK through the Patient and Caregiver Peer Support Program and in 2018, even donated a kidney to the husband of a coworker. She has found solace in comforting people.

“It is such a gift to me to be able to help someone else, after everything we went through,” says Cristy. “Life is so short — you have to make it meaningful. Helping other people is what counts.”

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Follow the Frasers on their epic coast-to-coast trip by visiting their website, teamjf.org.