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United by their struggles, women lose locks for kids

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On Friday night, close to 100 people will step into the spotlight to have their heads shaved.

They’ll sacrifice their locks for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit group raising money to fight childhood cancer.

Most of the shavees will be men willing to take up a cue-ball look. But then a team calling themselves A Bunch of Bald Chicks will step up. The all-women’s team has pledged to shave their own locks in honor of children with cancer.

The team formed around three women — Norma Scifres, Liz Alonso and Katie Vescelus — who were united by their struggles with childhood cancer. Each has had a child who suffered from retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye. Alonso’s son had to have an eye removed, and Vescelus’ son is blind after both eyes were taken out.

When they shave their heads to raise money for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, it will be in honor of their own children’s battles, as well as millions of other patients.

“We’re not losing our hair by consequence. We’re choosing to do this. We’re holding hands and doing it together,” Vescelus said. “All cancer victims, whether children or adults, they don’t choose to lose their hair.”

Vescelus is the de facto leader of the group. The Noblesville resident shaved her head last year for St. Baldrick’s at an event on the north side of Indianapolis, and her experience inspired the other women to take part.

Her son, Matthias, is 4 years old. He was diagnosed at 3½ months with tumors in both eyes.

Only about 250 U.S. children each year are diagnosed with retinoblastomas. The cancer has an almost 100 percent survival rate if the tumor is discovered before it has spread from the eye. But because it grows quickly, doctors often can’t catch it in time to treat it effectively.

Initial chemotherapy didn’t work to destroy the cancer, so he had to have both eyes surgically removed.

The quiet little boy is learning to maneuver with a cane. But he runs, plays and gets into mischief on his own. He loves to swim and climb on everything and is learning to play the piano.

“We looked at it as nature’s way of slowing this child down. He’s terrifyingly active now. If he had vision, I can’t imagine,” Vescelus said, jokingly.

As a one-woman team in 2012, she raised almost $6,000. Her hope was that one other woman would join her to shave her head this year; instead, she’s found eight others.

Scifres, Alonso and Vescelus met through an online forum for parents of children with retinoblastomas. They connected well online and were surprised to learn they all lived in the Indianapolis area.

When forming A Bunch of Bald Chicks, they recruited neighbors, sisters-in-law, mothers and Matthias’ teacher.

“This is one of those things where you say, ‘I’m going to shave my head.’ Then all the sudden, you have friends saying they want to do it to,” Vescelus said.

Alonso, a Greenwood resident, discovered her son Graham had an abnormality of the eye in the months after he was born. Taking hundreds of photos of Graham and his twin brother, Dylan, she noticed something odd in every shot.

Graham’s right eye was a normal blue color, just like his brother’s. But the left eye had a milky white look to it. The camera flash was capturing a tumor.

Graham was 6 months old at the time. Over the next eight months, he was treated and his left eye was removed.

That experience motivated Alonso to sign up for this year’s St. Baldrick’s Foundation event on the north side of Indianapolis.

“It was time. I wanted to do it last year, but I wasn’t in the right head-space for it. It’s been five years since we had our surgery, and so I thought this felt right,” Alonso said.

Scifres had heard about St. Baldrick’s through a friend, who had shaved his head at an event in Boston. The Greenwood resident didn’t realize that women participated in the event until Vescelus shared her participation last year.

Her daughter, Torey, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma when she went to the doctor for her six-month checkup. The doctor shined a light in her eye and found something was wrong. After seeing a specialist, it was determined that Torey had a tumor.

She went through six rounds of chemotherapy and numerous exams under anesthesia at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Torey also required freezing therapy on her eye, where physicians would freeze the tumor using superchilled gas. The extremely low temperatures killed the cancer cells without damaging the surrounding eye.

Now 8 years old, Torey is healthy and cancer free. But Scifres wanted to do something to recognize the struggle her daughter, and entire family, went through.

“It’s been so long since she had her cancer. Sometimes it’s a good reminder of what she went through,” Scifres said. “So much of the money St. Baldrick’s raises goes back to research to cure these cancers. They go through all kinds of childhood cancers.”

All of the women can appreciate that St. Baldrick’s Foundation cause is focused on childhood cancers.

The money that is raised goes toward grants to institutions researching pediatric cancers.

Cancers that affect kids are severely underfunded, Vescelus said.

The total amount of cancer research funded by the National Cancer Institute was more than $5 billion. Childhood cancers only received 3.7 percent of that.

Of the money that St. Baldrick’s raises, 82 percent goes to research. That’s higher than most cancer organizations, and appealed to all three women.

“I don’t care who finds the cure, as long as somebody does,” Vescelus said.

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