On Sunday, May 7, the Kick Cancer in the Gut Walk took place at Overpeck Park in Ridgefield Park. Over 100 people of all ages came to show their support by completing the one mile loop.
The goal of the walk was to raise the first $100,000 to support the gastric cancer research collaboration between the Technion in Israel and Dr. David Kelsen, the gastrointestinal oncologist affiliated with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who is currently treating the grandfather of Englewood’s Jojo Gribetz. Jojo, a seventh grader from Englewood who attends The Moriah School and East Hill Synagogue, came up with the idea for the walk as a way to honor his Saba, who was diagnosed with gastric cancer in June of 2021. Currently, due to the incredible generosity of family, friends and neighbors, the current funds raised are over $75,000.
The walk was Jojo’s brainchild, and came together with the help of his family, along with community supporters such as EmbroidMe of Grand Avenue in Englewood, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC aka MSK). EmbroidMe sent T-shirts, and even generously donated to this special event, while MSKCC sent swag and some social media-worthy props to make photographing the event fun!
Jojo’s grandfather lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his grandmother, but started his cancer treatment at MSKCC in New York City because his cancer is uncommon in the US and the Gastrointestinal Oncology Department at MSK has more experience treating gastric cancer than any other medical center in the country. Though gastric cancer is more rare in the US, it is one of the most common cancers in the world and is starting to affect the younger generation as well. Since most people don’t realize they have gastric cancer until it has progressed and spread, it can be difficult to treat.
When Jojo’s Saba was first diagnosed, his cancer had already spread and he wasn’t eligible for surgery; however, after a few rounds of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, his tumor shrank and he was able to have surgery: a partial gastrectomy. The surgery was considered a success until, unfortunately, his cancer returned, and became resistant to the medicines that had worked before.
Currently, Jojo’s grandfather is being treated with another type of chemotherapy and immunotherapy near his home in Florida. Jojo explained how hard it is to watch someone he loves suffer without being able to do much. So he decided to get involved in raising money and awareness for gastric cancer, which made his Saba very proud.
Jojo noted, “I know that it means a lot to him that I’m doing what I can to get the word out that we need to help the researchers and medical experts come up with more effective treatment options and, hopefully, a cure.”
Jojo decided to create a chesed project in honor of his bar mitzvah, so he and his family decided to organize the walk to raise money towards research and awareness for this disease. He sent a letter out to the greater Jewish community in the Englewood area, explaining that this cause means a lot to him because of his grandfather and that this is a cause we should all care about.
His parents helped share his letter on social media and created a website to allow people to donate directly to MSK to support gastric cancer research. Saba’s oncologist, Dr. Kelsen, provided their family with lots of information about his latest research that is helping doctors and researchers better understand the disease, so they can potentially develop better treatment options. Kelsen also shared with Jojo’s Saba that there are a number of clinical trials available in the gastric cancer field. The first trial is in its early stages and is meant to test a new drug, referred to as TST001. The second trial is a little further along and uses the patient’s immune system to attack the tumor.
There have been lots of new developments in gastric cancer research; however, most people don’t know about the disease since there is not enough media attention or research funding. In fact, Jojo stated that “much of the most promising new research can’t even begin without donations from individuals. In most cases, it’s only after real potential has been demonstrated by early studies that government funding for this work becomes possible. This is why our donations matter.”
The fundraising experts at MSK are helping to keep track of all the donations. The ultimate goal for Jojo is to help raise enough money to advance gastric cancer research to help find a cure. He is also hoping to help researchers find more effective treatment options, so that those with gastric cancer can continue their “quality of life…and continue to play pickleball!”
All the money that Jojo is raising goes towards Dr. Kelsen’s new research collaboration with the Technion in Israel. Dr. Kelsen told Jojo’s family that “stomach cancer is not just one disease. It’s actually several genomically-distinct cancers arising from the same organ.” Thus, Dr. Kelsen, in partnership with Technion University and the Levenberg Lab, has initiated a new study in collaboration with the MSK-Israel Research Project to build a new drug testing model. This is described as “an organoid, a 3D culture that is made using the patient’s own cancer cells. If successful, this new model—populated by MSK patient-derived gastric cancer and other GI cancer organoids—would allow the team to do several important things: study the events that lead to the development of such cancer, identify the beginning of metastasis, and allow new treatments to be immediately translated into the clinic.” This will hopefully benefit patients with stomach cancer both in Israel and the US.
Jojo gratefully mentioned how “people in his community have been so kind and very generous with their donations. A lot of them have met my Saba and some have gotten to know him well over the course of his many visits. They see how difficult it is to live with stomach cancer and they want to help him and others like him.”
Jojo and his family remarked how “grateful we are for the generous donations to our family’s fundraiser and for the dedication and expertise of the wonderful doctors and researchers who drive these amazing developments, and we pray that this new research collaboration changes the trajectory of this awful disease.”
Sunday’s successful fundraiser seems the first of many! Jojo’s mother created Kickcancerinthegut.org and the entire family is doing everything they can to raise awareness and funds for gastric cancer to help not only Jojo’s Saba but everyone who suffers from this disease.
Now it is time for you to take part in kicking cancer in the gut! To donate, please visit http://www.kickcancerinthegut.org/
By Julianne Katz