How a Stand Up to Cancer Survivor Found Support From Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing and More
“I’m a survivor. I made it through my journey. And I just want to make sure everybody else that has cancer can say they are a survivor, too,” brain cancer survivor Pearce Quesenberry said during the SU2C television special in 2010.
When The Hollywood Reporter recently photographed the founders of Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, there was an unexpected guest at the May 20 shoot. A gentle presence in the room, she wore a bandanna covering her scalp, and all of the SU2C women, a group that includes journalist Katie Couric and philanthropist and former studio head Sherry Lansing, seemed to be fawning over her, a bit protectively. Philanthropic strategist Ellen Ziffren — while talking about the more than $500 million that the nonprofit has raised for cancer research in the last decade in connection with its star-studded biennial telecast — told me her name: Pearce Quesenberry.
"She’s a brain cancer survivor. And she was on our first show 10 years ago when she was just a little kid," said Ziffren, who brought Quesenberry to the shoot. "She rode over here with me today and we were talking about hair, because we're all fussing with our hair for the photo shoot. I said, 'When was the last time you had hair?' And she said, 'When I was 10.'"
During the photo shoot, Ziffren introduced me to Quesenberry, 20, and the entire group related just how close she is to the SU2C family. Couric first met her in the summer of 2008, when Quesenberry was 10 years old. The then-CBS anchor interviewed her at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Quesenberry was in treatment for medulloblastoma, a type of malignant brain tumor most commonly occurring in children. In the segment, Quesenberry explained how the feeding tube in her nose functioned.
"It goes up my nose and down into my throat and down into my stomach," she said. Quesenberry had been diagnosed in February of that year with a lemon-size tumor in her brain, had surgery three days later to remove it and then entered a clinical trial combining experimental chemotherapy drugs, radiation and stem cell transplants that would hopefully increase her survival chances to 50 percent. At the hospital, the fifth-grader endured 31 rounds of intense radiation treatment to her head and spine (the cancer had metastasized via her spinal fluid). The approach was aggressive. "I did a therapy that was typically done five years over the course concentrated into nine months," Quesenberry explained.
That same year, she appeared with actress Abigail Breslin on the first SU2C fundraising TV special, which also saw the surprise appearance of Patrick Swayze, who was then fighting his own battle with pancreatic cancer. "Abigail and I did a little shout-out to call now and donate," said Quesenberry. Recalled Lansing, "I remember she was next to me and I was like sobbing listening to her story." Quesenberry continued: "I was in between chemo rounds at the show. I was able to fly back and go to the hospital and do my last round of chemo." The first special raised $100 million for research funding.
By October 2008, Quesenberry was diagnosed with no evidence of disease. The clinical trial (which SU2C was not involved in funding; the group hadn’t started granting money yet) had worked. Two years later, Quesenberry, then 13, appeared on the second telecast in 2010 and announced, "I’m a survivor. I made it through my journey. And I just want to make sure everybody else that has cancer can say they are a survivor, too."
Today, in 2018, she’s a student at Pepperdine University studying public relations. "Day to day, I'm doing well. I'm in college. I'm working," Quesenberry told me. And she has just recently joined SU2C as one of their summer interns, helping the communications, digital, marketing and production teams put together the sixth biennial fundraising telecast, which will air this fall as a roadblock special on Sept. 7. "The founders of Stand Up to Cancer have kind of taken me under their wing," she said. "I joke that they are like my California moms almost. I have all of them in my court rooting for me every step of the way."
Quesenberry went into remission in 2013 when she was officially five years cancer-free ("That’s a success story," said Couric), but she does suffer from serious after-effects. "That’s fairly common with pediatric cancer surivivors. They have a lot of issues to contend with," added SU2C co-founder and chief communications strategist Kathleen Lobb. As Quesenberry explained it, "I have chronic pain, chronic nausea and chronic fatigue from my treatment. Because I had radiation from my brain to my full spine, I have a lot of back pain. I have to take hormone replacement drugs for the rest of my life. I have a lot of problems with endocrinology, and my fertility is an issue. I also can't do any high-impact exercise or sports. I grew up playing ice hockey, so I'm not able to do that anymore because of my joints. I also have hearing loss from the radiation. My hair doesn't grow. The radiation I had was really strong in those areas, where my tumor was, and it killed the hair follicles." She used to wear a wig in high school. Now, Ziffren observed, Quesenberry's approach is, "'I'm in college, I don't really care. I'll just wear a bandana.' She has the greatest attitude ever. It's absolutely phenomenal."
On June 8, Quesenberry appeared at an event at the offices of SU2C donor Mastercard in New York, sharing her story with employees. "Pearce motivates people to get involved. I watched spellbound as she inspired thousands of Mastercard employees, a living, breathing embodiment of the type of life-saving research their corporate and individual donations enable SU2C to support," recalled SU2C co-founder Rusty Robertson of the day.
Quesenberry, who runs the nonprofit Pearce Q. Foundation to help children battling cancer, is excited to work this summer at SU2C because she continues to want to give back. "The type of research they fund is saving lives and it’s what we need," said Quesenberry, who will return in the fall to Pepperdine for her senior year. "All of the advocacy work that I’ve done, especially with Stand Up, gives me a platform as a cancer survivor to advocate for the friends that I've lost. There were 70 kids on the pediatric cancer ward I was on and I was one of the oldest at age 10. And I lost a ton of friends. So I want to share my story and inspire others to join this movement. I'm just very amazed at how far I’ve come."
Funding clinical trials that bring results to patients, the sort of fast-track approach that saved Quesenberry's life, is the core mission of SU2C. "The people who are living longer and healthier lives is what we’re pushing for," said Ziffren, who noted that SU2C has made pediatric cancer research a priority for years. It has funded a scientific Dream Team (the group's approach is to bring together scientists from different institutions to collaborate) with the St. Baldrick's Foundation, whose research contributed to an approval in 2017 of a successful immuno-therapy for certain types of childhood and young adult leukemias. A new iteration of that team is working on extending its research to solid cancers, including brain tumors, as well. The hope is that immuno-therapies may cause fewer harmful long-term effects than chemotherapies and radiation.
SU2C is also supporting the work of two early-career researchers investigating brain tumors through its Innovative Research Grant program, and the SU2C Canada Stem Cell Dream Team is conducting a clinical trial of pediatric brain tumors. Also, in collaboration with Cancer Research UK, it has just put out an invitation for proposals for a new pediatric brain tumor Dream Team. “Collaboration and cooperation really help to accelerate the pace of cancer research,” said SU2C CEO and president Sung Poblete, “so that we have the ability to save lives now.”