DANVERS — Cancer survivor and expectant mom Kezia Fitzgerald giggles infectiously and flashes a bright smile as she talks about why she plans to have her blond hair buzzed off on Sunday at the fourth annual Kid’s Cancer Buzz-Off at Gillette Stadium.
The event benefits children and families dealing with pediatric cancer at Boston Children’s Hospital.
She smiles and laughs even though she and her husband, Mike, know all too well what those families are facing. Though Kezia, 28, survived her own battle with cancer, the Danvers couple lost their 18-month-old daughter, Saoirse (pronounced “Seersha”), to neuroblastoma on Dec. 13, 2011.
Sunday’s event, which features New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, aims to raise $1 million for a nonprofit childhood cancer foundation called One Mission.
“The nice thing about what One Mission does is they support the family services at Boston Children’s. We got so much support from family services at Boston Children’s,” Kezia said, including child life specialists in the play room, music therapy and parking services, among other things.
Family and friends of cancer survivors raise pledges, then join Gronkowski in getting their heads shaved. Several other North Shore residents will be part of the event, including Lucia Rebelo of Salem and her great niece, Victoria Silva, and Kathy Tracy of West Newbury, a training specialist at Northeast Arc in Danvers.
Saoirse was just 11 months old when she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the central nervous system that starts on the adrenal glands. It is the most common form of cancer in infants, Kezia said. Usually there is one primary tumor, but by the time it is found, it has metastasized, because infants don’t have the ability to say what they are feeling.
Kezia’s normally independent baby became clingy and whiny at 10 months old, and her face became swollen and bumpy. She once woke up with two black eyes. Pediatricians and emergency room doctors struggled for three weeks to come up with the diagnosis — and then started treatment within 24 hours, because her cancer was so aggressive. She was already at Stage 4.
Just five months earlier, Kezia had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
“That was sort of our throw into the cancer world,” Kezia said. Their cancer treatments overlapped for several months.
Kezia and her husband decided to shave Saoirse’s head when she was 1, after her hair started falling out following the first round of chemotherapy. The problem was the baby’s hair would fall out while she slept, get in her mouth or eyes and wake her up.
“Her first haircut was a buzz cut,” Kezia said. The feeling of the stubble made Saoirse giggle. “She thought it was awesome, so we went with it. Whatever. She was cute bald.”
Saoirse had six rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove two tumors. The doctors cleared her. But two weeks later, on a trip to New York to do a less toxic antibody therapy, her bone marrow tested positive for cancer. Further treatments could not stem the cancer, and the baby died in the pediatric intensive care unit at Boston Children’s Hospital. Her death shocked even those medical professionals working to save her life.
“We didn’t expect her to deteriorate as fast as she did,” Kezia said. She and her husband had been convinced they would be taking her home for Christmas.
After her death, the family established the Fitzgerald Cancer Fund to help children and families who have a similar diagnosis.
“Her life was so short, I feel like I don’t want it to end with her death, you know what I mean? So, really, my goal was to learn from her,” Kezia said. “She was such a positive little kid. I would get four hours of chemo and be nauseous and on the couch for three or four days. She would get five days of chemo and never take an extra nap.”
Last year, her husband heard about the Kid’s Cancer Buzz-Off on the radio, and had his head shaved for Saoirse. He’d planned to do it this year, too, but had to go on a business trip, so Kezia volunteered to do it for him.
“Being pregnant, it will be good; it will be hot and it will keep me cooler,” she said of the bright side of being bald. Her father, Craig Liversidge of Andover, also plans to have his head shaved.
Kezia, whose baby boy is due July 23, said it is important to have a positive outlook, because many people turn away when faced with talking about pediatric cancer. That, in turn, can hurt fundraising, awareness and support for other families. It’s also why she continues to laugh despite all she and her family have gone through.
“It’s one of those things; you either get really depressed about it or you sort of roll with it and go with it,” she said. “It’s not fun, but you don’t really have an option but to do something about it.”
To learn more about the Kid’s Cancer Buzz-Off, to sponsor the event, or to donate to Kezia or another “buzzee,” go to buzzforkids.org. Registration is sold out.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.