The scene called for Charlie to float to the top of the Wonka Bubble Room after sampling the Fizzy Lifting Drink, and when the fly rig lifted 13-year-old Colin Laska the elevation was more than physical.
As Colin rose and laughed and burped in character, joy filled the audience and tears spilled over his mother’s cheeks.
“What I see onstage is so different from what I remember,” Catherine Laska said. “Colin is a walking miracle.”
For 10 years Colin has battled cancer. Unlike so many, he has triumphed against the odds.
“I will never forget that day. Colin was 3 years old,” his mother recalled. “I was changing him from his pajamas when I noticed what seemed to be a tumor popping out of Colin’s abdomen. It looked like a bunch of grapes. I panicked. I called the pediatrician, grabbed Colin and drove to the doctor.”
That day, Wayne and Catherine Laska learned that Colin was suffering from a rare type of kidney cancer, Wilms’ tumor, or nephroblastoma. The tumor can develop in both kidneys, but in Colin’s case it was isolated to one kidney, which it had already nearly consumed.
The disease occurs in about 1 out of 250,000 children. And, as reality set in that Colin was the “1,” the Laskas dug in as a family to battle cancer together.
A biopsy showed that the tumor had metastasized and spread throughout his kidney and lungs and was wrapped tightly around the vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the heart.
The surgical and pediatric team immediately launched a specific treatment protocol for Wilms’, and the Laskas found themselves in unfamiliar territory. The process begins with six weeks of chemotherapy, followed by another six weeks and then surgery. The treatment is long and grueling.
The two older Laska boys, Nathan and Taylor, waited with their parents as their brother fought for his life. They still had to attend school and do all the things expected of an 8- and 5-year-old, and their parents had to maintain a level of normalcy.
“As we waited, and tried to live, I realized that the doctors can heal my child, but we need help keeping the family together. This was going to be a long ordeal, and we needed help,” Wayne Laska said.
The Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation provided more than help to the Laskas; it was a lifeline.
The foundation provides free emotional, educational, psychological and financial assistance to families of children diagnosed with life- threatening diseases, such as cancer, immune system-related diseases and blood-related diseases. When a team of physicians diagnoses a child with cancer, they reach out to the foundation for patient and family support. Through a referral process, a family can take advantage of the more than 50 programs and services that the foundation offers.
Dr. Ronald Oseas, the first pediatric oncologist in Las Vegas, organized the foundation in 1993. Back then, if a child in Las Vegas was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, his family had to travel to Los Angeles or Phoenix for treatment. Oseas recognized a void and filled it.
In 19 years, the foundation has become the place to go for children and their families coping with the most frightening time of their lives. The idea is to be a one-stop shop for all needs outside of medical.
With a caseload of more than 600, the foundation is the largest agency in Nevada for childhood diseases.
In 1998, Oseas recruited Jeff Gordon, former general manager of the Continental Basketball Association’s Wyoming Wildcats, to lead the foundation, bring some disciplined business skills to the organization and expand its services and outreach.
As a cancer survivor himself – Gordon battled stage-three Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2000 – he empathizes with the patients and the families.
“I knew how scared I was and how my family reacted, and I can only imagine the devastation of a child and family when it happens to someone so young and innocent,” he said. “The world turns upside-down quick, and by no fault of their own, they find themselves in a very dark place without hope. Every child should have hope.”
Families are referred to the foundation by agencies, doctors and hospitals. Foundation coordinators generally make contact with the families within 48 hours of the referral. A staff of social workers then conducts a full family assessment to determine where they are in all areas: financial, emotional and educational.
Pediatric and clinical social workers and counselors also meet with the families to assess their needs and help them cope.
That’s certainly how it worked for the Laskas as they struggled with Colin’s devastating diagnosis.
“The educational services are amazing – the best in the country,” Catherine Laska said.
Foundation staff members recognized that the children were missing school while in the hospital for Colin’s treatments. They proposed a radical idea to the Clark County School District: the foundation would build a classroom at Sunrise Hospital and the district would give the children educational credit for attending classes there.
In June 2008 the Education Service program opened the first in-patient classroom in Nevada. Underwritten by Las Vegas philanthropist Brett Torino, it is the only classroom in the nation run by a nonprofit in a hospital. Since its launch, the classroom has grown to serve more than 140 children each year.
But the educational support doesn’t end at the doors of the hospital.
Cancer and its treatment often affects the development stages of children, and reintegration into school can be difficult. Foundation counselors facilitate school meetings, conduct private conferences and assist with curriculum and classroom accommodations.
One way the foundation helps the kids and their classmates adjust is through a puppet show called “Kids Supporting Kids.” Two large puppets, Shane and Valerie, visit the classroom and explain the illness and tell the other kids, “John’s coming back to school, but he’s not contagious.”
The foundation also offers a “safe environment” for their patients and families: Camp Cartwheel, a private spot at Torino Ranch where children and their families can convene and play without worrying about anyone noticing their missing hair or their reduced physical skills. They stay in cabins, play in the pond, and even learn to scuba dive in the pool. Often the children begin as campers and become counselors; Nathan and Taylor Laska have both followed that path.
As a nonprofit organization, the foundation must constantly seek funding through the private sector. Gordon has a $2 million budget to fill each year with the help of local grants and sponsors.
“Because the NCCF is not affiliated with national or government associations, everything comes from this amazing community and their hearts,” Gordon said.
Every year the foundation and Donny Osmond host the Danny Gans Memorial Run for Life followed by the Champions Run for Life, in which children fighting cancer run, walk and wheel around a specially designed course.
Colin runs every year.
The foundation’s largest fundraiser is the Profiles of Courage Gala, which celebrates the bravery of children and their families in face of life-threatening diseases. Last year’s gala was held in November at Bellagio.
The Laskas are fortunate; a decade after his surgery and treatment, Colin remains free of cancer, and the foundation remains an important part of his life.
Despite his success onstage and above it, acting will assume a less significant role in Colin’s future – he wants to be a doctor or a scientist.
“I want to help people, like the doctors did for me,” he said.R-Jeneration