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A memory enshrined: local student’s life memorialized by fund fighting cancer

Dominic+Cairo%2C+center%2C+died+of+cancer+in+2011+when+he+was+8+years+old.
Dominic Cairo, center, died of cancer in 2011 when he was 8 years old.

Dominic Cairo, center, died of cancer in 2011 when he was 8 years old.

Dominic Cairo, center, died of cancer in 2011 when he was 8 years old.

Lars Lonnroth, Assistant News Editor

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Dominic Cairo was first diagnosed with cancer when he was only 5 years-old. After vigorous treatment, he emerged cancer free. Then, 18 months later, it happened again—he relapsed. Like the last time, he emerged cancer free.

It took three cancer diagnoses and a three-year fight with cancer to take the life out of Dominic, a La Grange Park resident and an incoming third grader at Ogden Elementary. In the days after finishing second grade in 2011—June 26 to be exact—he died of cancer. He was only 8 years old.

“Quite honestly, with where it was located, I guess we were lucky to have him as long as we did,” his mother Anna Cairo said.

Dominic was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Lymphoma right before he started kindergarten in 2008. Hist parents opted to take him out of school and he was homeschool while he underwent treatment. Then the cancer went away, but it didn’t stay away forever.

During his third fight with cancer, the cancer had gotten into his bloodstream and spread into his brain, which made chances of survival much slimmer.

The odds weren’t in his favor, and it wasn’t a fight he was able to win.

That was in 2011, and it was devastating for the Cairos and for the community as a whole. At the same time, however, his mom didn’t want to sit and feel sorry for herself: she wanted to take real steps to end childhood cancer.

Through talking to a friend and a St. Baldrick’s foundation employee whose own child died of cancer, Anna learned that there was a way to make this flickering of an idea a reality and start raising money without the bureaucratic headache of starting her own charity.

“I told her that I wanted to keep his memory alive, and I wanted to do more than what I was doing with St. Baldrick’s,” Anna recalled. “She said that ‘St. Baldrick’s has this thing called a Hero Fund, and you don’t have to pay any taxes, you don’t have to worry about any of the paperwork. You just have to sign a contract and raise money.’ ”

Before the fund was created, however, St. Baldrick’s required $10,000 to already be raised before they actually brought the fund to life. But luckily that had already been raised by a community fundraising effort by some of Dominic’s peers at Ogden Elementary school, which Anna attributes to spurring her to start the fund.

“They are the one who started the team in honor of him, and I was a little taken aback by that; I was surprised,” Anna said. “Because of that team, that gave me the funds to actually start the research and begin the Do It For Dominic hero fund.”

Since starting the team at Ogden, the school’s student council has consistently been the largest fundraiser for the fund, Anna said. In the first year, the students were able to collect $30,000 for the Do It For Dominic fund. In another year, they raised a total of $50,000.

“We were completely blown away by the response,” said Tara Peterson, the sponsor of the student council at Ogden when the Do it for Dominic fund was emerging.

The student council, comprised of fourth through sixth graders, would sell bracelets with “Do It For Dominic” embossed in the rubber, which were quite popular, Peterson said. They also organized bake sales, made announcements over the PA and sold “lucky charms,” or a piece of paper bearing a person’s name which would then be hung on the wall.

“Naturally the word kept spreading,” Peterson said. “People would see the bracelets and the lucky charms on the wall… It just really created excitement.”

Since then, other schools have created similar teams to raise money for The Do It For Dominic hero fund, including Saint Francis Xavier and other local schools.

The fundraising efforts orchestrated by places like Ogden and St. Francis have played an integral part in the fund’s success, Anna said. Those efforts have helped the fund garner around $270,000 in donations since 2009 (The fund was started in 2012, but those numbers include all of Anna’s fundraising for the foundation which started in 2009).

That $270,000 has been used to give out three grants to researchers and organizations working to find a cure to childhood cancer. Two of the three grants went to Chicago-area hospitals, as Anna saw those as places as a means of having a direct impact on cancer patients in the area.

“It’s always been in Illinois [that I have given the grants], because those are the hospitals most people would go to [in Illinois],” Anna said.

The Do It For Dominic Hero Fund handed out its first grant of $58,000 to an optometrist at Lurie Children’s hospital.

Then, in 2016, the fund gave a $100,000 grant to a group at Lurie Children’s Hospital through Northwestern for research on Leukemia, which is quite similar to the Lymphoma that Dominic had, Anna said.  

But on Oct. 24, 2017, St. Baldrick’s put out a press release announcing the Do It For Dominic fund’s most recent—and potentially most groundbreaking—grant of the funds history.

Unlike the other two, this $115,000 grant went out of state.

Dr. Matthew Barth, a researcher and professor University of Buffalo, received the grant for his research into Burkitt Lymphoma. This type of lymphoma already has a survival rate of around 90 percent, and since the survival rate is so high, it is quite hard to increase, Barth said.

“We do a very good job of treating children with Burkitt Lymphoma—we cure a lot of them—but it does mean they need to get really intensive chemotherapy to try and treat them,” he said.

As a result, Barth’s research focuses on making the treatment less painful for the children suffering from Burkitt Lymphoma and increasing their quality of life.

“Is it going to be possible to find agents [and treatments] that are a little more targeted?” Barth said. “Can we find things that are really going to affect mostly the cancer cells and not cause all the side effects that chemotherapy causes? That’s one of the ways I have approached this project.”

When Anna was deciding upon where they wished to give their grant, she had trepidations regarding whether or not she wanted them to give the grant to a researcher outside of Illinois, she said.

She went back and forth on whether or not she wanted to send the grant out of state, but thought Barth’s work was worth it.

“I was a little hesitant on doing the New York thing because I kinda felt like a traitor,” Anna said. “But, you know what, they have something really promising, and it was towards lymphoma and it was this other thing that was groundbreaking.”

Part of her concerns was whether or not taking the grant out of state would upset some of the local Chicago-land individuals who play a critical role in raising the money to give out these grants.

Every year in March, many of those who raised money for the fund assemble at the MAX in McCook for a two-hour-long celebration of the fundraising for this year recognizing those who The event, Anna said, features music, face painting and the ability for people to shave their heads for St. Baldrick’s. This year, the event is poised to occur at the MAX on March 16.     

Correction: As a result of a reporting error, a print version of this story erroneously stated that Dominic died of Cancer on June 22. Dominic died on June 26, not June 22. We sincerely regret this mistake.

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A memory enshrined: local student’s life memorialized by fund fighting cancer