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Smashing Childhood Cancer

A boy and his dad sat in the sun under a bright yellow lemonade stand, raising funds for cancer research at $1 a cup. “FIGHTING CANCER FOR KIDZ” was painted along the stand in primary colors.

A boy and his dad sat in the sun under a bright yellow lemonade stand, raising funds for cancer research at $1 a cup.

“FIGHTING CANCER FOR KIDZ” was painted along the stand in primary colors. Sales were up at the stand, helmed by a smiling Connor Cruse and his dad, Tait. The fundraising effort was amidst a four year cancer battle for Connor, who was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma in May 2005.

Between 2005 and 2009, Connor underwent 14 surgeries, 40 blood transfusions, 2-dozen platelet transfusions, 25 rounds of chemo, two bone marrow transplants and a myriad of painful procedures with visits to specialists across the world. 

Throughout the fight, Connor wanted to help kids like him, his mom Joy Cruse said.

“Connor would say, if you can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer?” Cruse recalled. “We were like, you know what, Connor, you’re right. We need to do what we can.”

Eventually, Connor’s efforts grew beyond the scope of the lemonade stand. Connor’s family founded TeamConnor, a childhood cancer foundation, in 2008. There wasn’t much cancer research for kids like Connor, Cruse found. They wanted to do their part in changing that.

And while Connor fought, and TeamConnor worked, the little boy at the heart of it all inspired many. 

It could be seen in a stadium of wet eyes as Connor wore an oversized blue No. 99 football jersey, walking hand-in-hand with a high schooler as an honorary captain at a Prestonwood Christian Academy football game. Later, Connor held hands with Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikmen at a fundraiser. 

His impact grew and his bravery inspired until the end. On July 10, 2009, Connor’s battle with cancer ended. He was 8 years old. “He was a valiant warrior with incredible faith,” his family pointed out on the TeamConnor website. “He was a fighter to the very end. His motto was, ‘Be brave and believe in Jesus.’”

Still, 11 years after his passing, Connor’s legacy of helping kids with cancer lives on, and was on full display Saturday at the third annual Smashing Childhood Cancer tennis clinic and exhibition at Lifetime Plano’s indoor tennis courts. This year’s event was focused on raising money for several children, including 12-year-old Jacob Ittigson, an “honored hero” who is currently hospitalized and was unable to attend Saturday’s event. Instead his dad and two best friends appeared to speak with participants.

“That’s what TeamConnor is, it’s his legacy,” Cruse said. “[Connor’s] dying wish was that other kids wouldn’t have to face what he had to endure.”

TeamConnor has raised millions of dollars for childhood cancer research and assisting families financially when the fight against pediatric cancer reaches their home. In its third year, Cruse expects the event to bring in close $30,000, up from $20,000 last year and $10,000 in the inaugural event.

A majority of TeamConnor’s mission is to fund childhood cancer research, an effort that’s personal to Cruse. She said when Connor was in the midst of his fight, the treatments were geared towards adults. Something she said was detrimental to his health.

“The government only gives 3 percent of funding for childhood cancer research,” Cruse said. “In the last 20 years, only one or two drugs were made specifically for childhood cancer. So they’re using drugs for adult cancer on children. You can imagine how toxic and harsh that is. There’s a lot of secondary cancers and chronic illnesses [as a result]. That’s how Connor passed away, he got a second cancer from the radiation.”

To date, Cruse said TeamConnor has donated over $3 million to childhood cancer research. Cruse’s goal, she said, is to make sure another child doesn’t have to go through what Connor went through. It’s TeamConnor’s mission that was given to the 501c3 by Connor himself.

Part of that mission took place Saturday in Plano, as tennis players went through drills and received instruction from area pros for a good cause, raising thousands. 

Tennis Pros from area tennis facilities led the drills, including: AJ Chabria – At The Net, Clint Sumrow – HEAD Penn Racquet Sports, Craig Bell – Bent Tree Country Club, Steve Nolen – Spring Park Racquet Club, Henry Gonzales – Gleneagles Country Club, Rob Van Der Schans – Canyon Creek Country Club, Andres Osorio – Lifetime Fitness, Carlos Aguirre – Stonebriar Country Club.

The 10 courts of the Lifetime Athletic Center in Plano were filled with players honing their game. The ages and talent levels varied. But the cause at the heart was the same.

James Ingrahm, a participant with a strong backhand and a new lease on life was among the tennis players at the Smashing Childhood Cancer clinic and exhibition. 

Ingrahm had a cancerous “football-sized” tumor removed from his chest in May. Ingrahm said he was there to do their part in helping find a cure for the kids. Despite a massive scar across his chest, Ingrahm is now cancer free and was excited at the opportunity t

“The cause is really close to me,” Ingrahm said. “I’m a survivor. I love the Cruse’s and I really hate cancer. I’m here and we’re trying hard to find a cure.”