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Gisele Bunchen Gives Her Heart To St. Jude's Children

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Hollywood has a long tradition of doing whatever it takes - golf tournaments, telethons, concerts, walks and PSAs -- to help children in need. This holiday season supermodel Gisele Bunchen is selling her heart to benefit St. Jude Children's Hospital.

"I chose to help St. Jude because first of all, I love kids," says the Brazilian beauty. "My two grandmothers both died of cancer so I understand how painful and difficult this disease is on the entire family. My first grandmother passed away from bone cancer when I was about 10. It was really horrible. I remember the whole process like it was yesterday."

"So the thought of children going through what my grandmothers went through with their cancer made me really sad and I had to do something," she adds.

For Bunchen, this meant participating in a unique fundraiser. 

Working with Platinum Guild International and Harpers Bazaar, Bunchen designed an exclusive platinum heart which was manufactured by Gumuchian Fils. A limited number will be available for sale this month only in Harper's Bazaar magazine. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds will be donated to St. Jude.

"I liked this fundraising idea because it was unique," Bunchen states. "For me platinum is the most rare, the most pure and most precious of all metals - just like St. Jude is the most precious and best place in the world for healing children with cancer. I think I made a good choice choosing St. Jude because it shares so many of the best qualities with platinum."

For over 40 years now, St. Jude has been the crown jewel in pediatric cancer medicine by keeping its promise that if a child is eligible for a treatment protocol they will never turn a family away because of money.

"If they don't have insurance or they don't have any money, St. Jude will still treat that child for free," Bunchen notes. "But besides paying for treatment, they also pay for the families travel expenses, a place to stay and even their meals."

With treatments costing as much as $600,000, St. Jude now treats more than 5000 patients annually. The vast majority are either solid tumor cancer patients or patients enrolled in leukemia/lymphoma programs.

"We treat the most children in the brain tumor program," reports Joseph Mirro, chief medical officer and executive vice president of St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis Tennessee. "The major problem we still face in pediatric oncology is -- how do you cure the child with a brain tumor -- remove the brain tumor and still leave the child in tact as much as possible so they can go on and live a normal and productive life?"

In the 1960's, Mirro explains that if a brain tumor could not be surgical removed there wasn't much hope for survival.  But advances in both surgical skill and medical technology are allowing brain surgeons to successfully remove more of the tumors with less collateral damage.

Radiation therapy has also progressed dramatically.

"We can now use computer technology to rotate the radiation beam through 360 degrees," Mirro says. "That means we can now hit the tumor exactly the way we want to hit it for exactly the amount of time needed."

Advances in chemotherapy -- many developed at St. Jude - allow children to tolerate the treatment better which in turn has increased cure rates for brain tumors and other solid cancers. Medulloblastoma, which was generally fatal, now has an 80% cure rate because doctors have been able to increase children's chemotherapy doses.

"But we're also able to protect the child undergoing chemotherapy by giving them some of their own bone marrow back and thereby eliminating some of the treatment toxicity," Mirro notes.

Together, these advances at St. Jude have translated into incredible strides in treating pediatric brain cancer like neuroblastoma, where more than 50% of patients now survive compared to 10% when the medical center first opened.

While roughly 43% of patients are treated for solid tumors, 39% are treated for leukemia or lymphoma.

"We treat a lot of ALL or acute lymphoblastic leukemia," Mirro says. "We're trying to push to 90% cure rates but for that 10% of children - 90% just isn't good enough. We really have to push this treatment forward and that last 10% is going to be tough and requires new therapies and knowledge we just don't have yet."

And that is why fundraising is critical to St. Jude, where the daily cost of operations exceeds one million dollars per day.

"Their research is known all over the world but it's expensive so we all need to help," urges Bunchen, who will appear as a villain in the comedy Taxi starring Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah. "St. Jude is the hospital that other doctors all over the world call when they need help treating a child because St. Jude researchers actually developed many of the treatments."

While St. Jude is perhaps best known for treating and curing childhood cancers, the institution is also researching many other diseases such as HIV, influenza and sickle cell disease. Led by Dr. Rupert Handgretinger, St. Jude is also developing a breakthrough bone marrow transplantation process.

"We are leading the field in pushing the window open wider for using parents as donors," Mirro states. "Marrow donation without a perfect match is showing very good promise. And it is exciting because this frontier can also open up a lot of treatments for other diseases like sickle cell."

In simple terms, Handgretinger's new technique is like a washing of the marrow donor cells so that the "bad" immune cells that would trigger a graft versus host reaction are removed leaving only the "good" donor cells for transplantation.

If this technique succeeds one of the biggest and most agonizing problems - finding a matching donor - will no longer torment families.

Bunchen's family experienced the heartbreak of a terminal illness twice. That's why she is hoping people will open not only their hearts but also their pocketbooks to help St. Jude.

"Christmas and the holidays are the season of giving," Bunchen states. "It's a time when people are more kind and open-hearted. This is a perfect time to be selling a heart to raise money for kids, because this is of course a time of year that is very important to children. I remember waiting the whole year for Christmas to get presents."

Bunchen is herself playing Santa and putting her money where her mouth is.

"I am giving all my sisters each a platinum heart," Bunchen explains. "I did the design thinking of them and my mother. I have five sisters so the big heart symbolizes my mom and then there are six diamonds representing each of us sisters that float around inside connected to the larger heart. So they get to wear something beautiful and know we are helping an amazing hospital cure children with cancer."

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 12/20/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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