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Boy realizes dream to help families with cancer

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Ten days before the start of kindergarten some years ago, Rachel LaVictoire was diagnosed with acute lymphocystic leukemia.

ALL, as it is sometimes called, is a "liquid" tumor or cancer of the blood. It is the most common pediatric cancer, doctors say, accounting for 35 percent of all new cancer cases in children.

It was harrowing news for Rachel's entire family. She was 4 years old. Her brother, Max, was 7, a little boy with grown-up dreams.

One moment the Dunwoody siblings were playing, and the next, Rachel couldn't lift her arms above her head. She had to crawl to get to the bathroom.

Doctors ran a full blood count. It was all over the place. They X-rayed Rachel's back, thinking she might be constipated, and sent her home with an enema.

Not satisfied, her mother, Stacy LaVictoire, called a friend, a pediatric urologist. He called Rachel's pediatrician. They decided an abdominal CT scan was in order. Rachel's kidneys, the scan showed, were twice the size they should've been and functioning at 50 percent.

The LaVictoires spent the next 10 days in the Aflac Cancer Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, followed by weekly treatments over the next two years. Every third weekend, Rachel was admitted for more lengthy chemotherapy treatments. Every time she ran a temperature of 100.2 or higher, the family was back where it started. At Egleston.

Max was quickly approaching his eighth birthday, but even at his age, he knew something was terribly wrong with a world that demanded a child ---sick or not ---spend his days in a hospital. He had to do something. He'd start a foundation and raise money to find a cure for cancer.

"I have everything I could possible want,'' he told his parents shortly after Rachel's diagnosis in 1999. "I'd really like to have my friends make donations to my foundation in lieu of birthday gifts."

It was a big dream, one Tim and Stacy LaVictoire could hardly fathom --- a 7-year-old who'd learned the concept of enough, who could put others' needs before his own. Thinking the idea was just a passing fancy, they promised Max they'd talk about it later.

But Max couldn't wait. The very next day, he announced he had a name for his foundation. He'd call it Big Dreams: A World Without Cancer.

"If he's serious, I guess we'd better jump on board with him,'' his father said to his mother.

Max was more than serious. He'd spent too many days alone with nothing to do in that hospital waiting room, wished too many times the pain would stop, especially for his little sister.

He began small. Donations instead of birthday gifts. That inspired Rachel to donate her own birthday gifts to the hospital. And for the next few years, the two of them worked to put an end to cancer. By the time Max reached seventh grade, they were on a roll.

His class at Davis Academy voted to pour in $4,000, money they collected through IMPACT, the academy's charitable fund made up of gifts from students' bar and bat mitzvot.

Then in 2003, a group of businessmen donated $3,000, raising Big Dream's bottom line to well over $10,000.

But by that time, Max's focus had changed. There in the hospital waiting room, he'd discovered a need more attainable than curing cancer. He would give suffering children and their siblings something to do, something that would reduce the stress of being in a hospital, something to get their minds off the pain. Instead of donating the money to cancer research, he'd donate it to the Aflac Center to provide a play area for patients and their siblings.

Until then, all there was was a mishmash of chairs lining the walls and one Nintendo for an outpatient clinic that served 40 to 60 children a day.

With Max's donation early this year, the hospital created two play areas in the existing waiting room. In one corner are wall-mounted video games, and in another, a well-stocked arts-and-crafts cabinet, which is where a little girl, bald from chemotherapy, and her mother found solace the other day.

In less than two years, Rachel will be considered cancer-free. If she's lucky she'll never have to return to Egleston again, and neither will Max. But they will because they must.

They share a new dream. A teen lounge. To suggest a story, write Real Living, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 72 Marietta St. N.W., Atlanta, GA 30303, e-mail or call 770-509-4071.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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