Benefit to raise donations, hope for pediatric cancer

Though there are many fundraisers for a cure to pediatric cancer, what if cancer could be stopped before ever spreading in a child’s body?

A world-renowned illusionist, hors d’oeuvres, beer and a silent auction will be a part of the third annual A Magic Cure Benefit at The RITZ Ybor at 6 p.m. Saturday. Hosted by the Lawrence A. Martucci Benefit Corp, the benefit aids Tampa-based charity the Children’s Cancer Research Group through 1Voice Foundation.  

The president of Lawrence A. Martucci Benefit Corp, Luana Martucci, has helped raise more than $20,000 over the last two years organizing the event. 

This year’s goal is to raise $30,000, which will be donated to the research lab of Dr. Cameron Tebbi, the chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and the director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Tampa General Hospital.  

“Dr. Tebbi, I think, is one of the only laboratories in the United States that is actually researching for a prevention,” Martucci said. “Most of the research labs look for treatments.”

Instead of searching for a cure to pediatric cancer, Tebbi has spent the last 40 years trying to stop leukemia before it starts. 

A vaccine would prevent the cancer from ever taking root. This would avert not only death, but also the pain of treatment. A pain that Tebbi said he’s seen all too much of during his career.

One such case is 15-year-old Connor Hernandez, diagnosed at the age of 4. His mother, Tracey Hernandez, stays active in the cancer community.

“Connor has battled (leukemia) twice,” Tracey said. “He went into remission after about three and a half years of treatment.”

Connor had been off treatment for over a year before the cancer came back. However, this time, the treatments would not be the same.

“Connor’s body was starting to shut down,” Tracey said. “He was going into organ failure because of the chemo.”  

At that time, Tebbi and Tracey decided Connor would be better with quality of life rather than quantity. They moved him to a hospice, where all treatment stopped.

After two years, the hospice called Tracey and said Connor was healthy enough to leave. He is now considered to be in remission.

“Even Dr. Tebbi says that this should not be happening,” Tracey said. “He’s a miracle boy.”

Today Connor is left with radiation burns on his face from the radiation treatments that entered through his head.  

“His skin is extremely dry on his face and his head,” Tracey said.  “I was hoping it would go away, but it has not. It itches him, so he’ll scratch, and sometimes he’ll scratch to the point that he draws blood.”

Besides the radiation burns, Connor also experienced hair loss and weight gain. Chemotherapy alters a child’s metabolism and the treatment causes a patient to be put on special diets to manage weight while fighting cancer. 

But besides the painful side effects from the treatments, Connor is going on his fifth anniversary of remission.

Connor’s story is just one of thousands of different cancer stories families around the world have to share.

For instance, Martucci’s childhood cancer story has a different ending. Martucci’s younger brother, Lawrence, was diagnosed at 4 years old with a tumor on his spinal cord.

“I remember spending his fourth birthday at All Children’s Hospital,” Martucci said.

The doctors gave Lawrence only a 30 percent chance of living with the type of cancer he had and, on his last day of chemo, he was treated by Tebbi.  

“I remember being in the hospital room, (Tebbi) coming in,” Martucci said. “I was by myself with my brother at the time, and he just told me to tell my parents that my brother was cancer-free and that there were no more cancer cells in his body.

“It’s very heartbreaking when you think you’ve beaten something and then it turns around and the same treatment that made him cancer-free is what killed him.”

That is why families said they support Tebbi’s quest for a vaccine. So that others can avoid the pain of not knowing whether their child will live, even after going through excruciating treatment.

“The treatment itself feels like a death sentence,” Martucci said.

While treatment kills the cancer protein, it also leaves a child’s body in rough condition.

“Everybody’s all about better treatments, which we do need, but can you imagine what these children go through with the treatments?” Hernandez said. “To be able to be given a vaccine and not have to worry about it and not have to go through the treatment at all, that is a dream.”

Not only would a vaccine change that child’s life, it would change the family’s life as well. When Connor was diagnosed, his daily routine was waking up early in the morning to spend his entire day at the hospital for treatment.  

Though his two older brothers spent time with him at the hospital, Connor’s days were not spent playing on playgrounds or pretending to be a pirate on the monkey bars. Connor spent them in a hospital room watching movies.

A Magic Cure Benefit is important to Tebbi’s work, he said, in finding the anticipated vaccine. The benefit gives 100 percent of all donated money to Tebbi’s research.

Right now, Tebbi is focusing on a certain protein found in leukemia and is using Connor’s blood to help with his studies.

The money donated and raised through 1Voice Foundation and Lawrence A. Martucci Benefit Corp. goes toward lab equipment and tests that will need to be run after finding a possible vaccine. Right now, all tests are performed in test tubes.

“The next step is doing animal studies and the following step to that is testing on people,” Tebbi said.  

Even though the government subsidizes cancer research, it is still important for foundations to support the cause. According to the National Cancer Institute, the federal government gives 96 percent of its funds to adult cancer research, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. Only four percent goes to childhood cancer.  

“We have to rely on money that comes out of pocket to help our research,” Tebbi said.

Tickets are $35 for adults and $15 for children under 10. There will also be a ticket discount for USF students. More information can be found at