From tragedy to mission
In 2011, Andy Woods was on top of the world. He owned a residential tile business, just bought his first home — a new log cabin — and his second child was born.
And then the unthinkable happened. Stellablue, his seemingly healthy 4-year-old daughter, was diagnosed with a rare and, more often than not, fatal childhood cancer. She was diagnosed with advanced stage anaplastic tumor, falling in the 8 percent of children for whom chemotherapy is not effective. The treatment options were dismal.
"Life was great. We just brought our newborn daughter, Soren, home. But then it all turned," Andy said, referring to himself and his wife, Andrea. "We had less than 24 hours to get to a children's cancer unit."
He explained that Stellablue occasionally had stomach aches they thought were allergies. She called them "crampies," and they would come and go. But soon after, her blood test that showed something was really wrong — within three days her stomach was swollen to about the size of a cantaloupe, Andy said.
The Woods' lived in Bozeman, Mont., and there weren't any facilities close by.
The closest children's cancer unit was in Seattle. The doctor in Montana told Andy and Andrea they needed to find a pediatric oncologist. "I couldn't even pronounce pediatric oncologist then," Andy said.
The next day, Stellablue underwent a 14-hour surgery.
"We just left the house as quickly as we could," Andy said. "Honestly, I don't even know if we locked the door."
The family connected with a college friend who lived in Seattle, but they hadn't spoken in 15 years.
"She just let us campout there at her house," Andy said.
Fast-forward to today.
Andy is a cancer research scientist at the Childhood Cancer Therapy Development Institute in Beaverton and his family is moving to Beaverton in July.
"If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be doing cancer research, I would have laughed you out of the room," he said. But he turned the hopeless and helpless feeling he had into action that would not only save his daughter, but other children, as well.
After his own personal research, Andy pitched Dr. Charles Keller at the Childhood Cancer Therapy Development Institute on a research project studying the genetics of Wilms' tumor, which Stellablue had. Andy wanted to find more effective and less toxic treatment for children.
Keller said yes — as long as Andy funded it.
Andy crowdfunded a research project with Consano, the national non-profit that connects people with scientific research that matters to them.
Andy praised the work of Molly Lindquist, the founder and CEO of Consano. "She's amazing," he said. "She has a cancer story of her own, which is why she created the crowdfunding project. I am so grateful for her."
After finding a lump in her breast in 2011, Lindquist was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. And after enduring surgery and chemotherapy, she came out of her experience with a new chest, some new hair and a new mission, she said. She wanted to help advance science that might prevent her two daughters — who were 3 and 5 years old at the time of her diagnosis — from walking her same path.
The idea for Consano, which means "to heal" in Latin, was born out of her family's experience. It is a non-profit crowdfunding platform for medical research. Consano supports donating to a research project, or starting an honor fund in memory of a loved one to save the time and money required to start a foundation.
"Andy is a source of constant inspiration for me and one of my 'dad heroes.' He has truly taken the idea of patient-driven research to the next level," Lindquist said. "He's leveraging his family's personal experience to not only help his own daughter, but countless other kids and families who are facing a childhood cancer diagnosis," she added.
Through Consano, Andy raised more than $20,000 to launch a study last summer. With the strong preliminary data gathered in his first study, he secured a two-year, $100,000 grant that will enable him to move with his family to Beaverton permanently and start in Keller's lab full-time. At the end of the two-year study, he plans to publish and present a paper with strong rationale for a new treatment option and go to clinical trials. He also secured a $100,000, two-year grant to test new drug combinations after crowdfunding a research project on Consano last summer to collect preliminary data.
Though Andy feels like cancer research is his mission in life now, he said it didn't start that way. After Stellablue's first treatments, she relapsed almost immediately, within a month.
"I didn't want anything to do with cancer ever again. I felt like I was sucker-punched. I was really depressed after the relapse diagnosis," he said. "I knew the old treatments probably weren't going to work."
But Andy did move forward and in the meantime, he saved his child, the lives of others, and his career path all at once.
Stellablue is 10 now. "She's doing great," Andy said. "She has long-term side effects from the treatment, but she's here and it's amazing."
For more information, visit https://consano.org/projects/the-functional-genomics-of-wilms-tumor/