PALO ALTO, Calif. -- “It’s a relief that I can do what other kids do.”
Grace Chen, 12, of Sunnyvale, Calif., is discussing her recovery from childhood leukemia and the ability to go to school, hang out with friends, watch TV and just have a normal life. Well, mostly normal. There aren’t many other girls her age who can blast a golf ball 230 yards.
With 25 trophies scattered around her house, it’s obvious that Grace has the whole golf thing down. It’s been that way since she was 6 and in recovery from years of treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, at the Bass Center for Cancer and Childhood Blood Diseases at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
“My wife, Ni, and I wanted her to start doing something that would help her physically and mentally,” said Grace’s father, Weixing Chen. “Team sports weren’t best because of the requirements for physical activity and the possibility of germs spreading between kids. So we figured golf — with open, fresh air and beautiful settings — would be right for her, and she could do it at her own pace and get good exercise.”
Golf quickly became something more than just exercise. After clinics and lessons, at age 7 she won five medals in five categories in a national competition. Game on.
Grace is now readying for her 5th annual trip to the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship at Pinehurst, N.C., Aug. 1-3. Pediatric oncologist Gary Dahl, MD, is not surprised. “Grace represents a very important trend in leukemia treatments,” Dahl said. “In the early 1960s, before chemotherapy was used, only about 3 percent of patients like Grace were long-term survivors. But in the late ’60s and through the ’70s, we made major inroads in treatment. ALL now has a cure rate of around 90 percent and other types, such as acute myeloid leukemia, have improved to rates of 65 percent.”
Leukemia, a cancer of the blood that starts in the bone marrow and spreads to the bloodstream, is the most common childhood cancer. It hit Grace hard at age 2. She was temporarily living in China with her grandparents while her parents, who were working in the Bay Area, flew back and forth. The symptoms were classic: severe joint pain, fever, anemia and more. With a confirmed diagnosis, she flew to the Bay Area for treatment and came straight to Packard Children’s from the airport.
“Grace couldn’t speak English and she was very frightened,” Weixing said. “Once Dr. Dahl laid out the plan, she started receiving chemotherapy and dealing with all the side effects.”
Dahl, professor of pediatric hematology/oncology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, noted that Stanford Medicine is a member of the Children's Oncology Group, the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research. The group designs and evaluates cancer therapies through large clinical trials at more than 200 hospitals, universities and cancer centers primarily in the United States and Canada, and with input from members around the globe. From those trials came therapies and protocols that gave Grace her life back. Still, there were many tough moments, especially the painful bone marrow aspirations to check the status of her blood cells.
“I can’t remember too much,” said Grace, “but I remember the therapy, including the shots and then the ice cream afterward. I’m just really thankful to now be healthy.”
That thankfulness has helped many others, especially through Grace’s Birdie for ALL team, a group of junior Bay Area golfers that is part of her Gracious Life Foundation. The nonprofit was established in 2009 to raise awareness of childhood leukemia diseases and research. Birdie for ALL has supporters throughout the Bay Area who donate money for every birdie or better made by Grace and other team members. The group also hosts fundraising activities and holds golf-related events at Packard Children’s, Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, and Camp Okizu, a camp for children with cancer.
To date, Birdie for ALL has donated more than $6,000 to fund leukemia research and treatment at Packard Children's and Stanford Medicine. The impact of this commitment brought Grace the 2012 Peggy Kirk Bell award at last year’s U.S. Kids Golf World Championship. Named after the women’s golf pioneer, Grace was honored for using the power of golf for a greater good.
It’s a power that also creates low scores. She recently finished No. 1 at the Junior Golf Association of Northern California’s biggest annual tournament. It was good preparation for the Callaway Junior World championship in San Diego this month and the Aug. 1-3 U.S. Kids event, where in 2010 she posted her best competitive round ever, a 68. With personal heroes like superstars Yani Tseng and Phil Mickelson, is Grace envisioning a pro career?
“I hope to play in high school, and my college dream is to go to Stanford, Princeton, Harvard or UCLA,” Grace said. “For now, I think I want to wait and see how things go, but I do know one thing. I feel like golf has played a large role in helping me recover.”
Find out more about Grace Chen and the Gracious Life Foundation at www.birdieforall.org.
About Stanford Children’s Health and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford
Stanford Children’s Health, with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford at its core, is the largest Bay Area health care enterprise exclusively dedicated to children and expectant mothers. Long recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s best, we are a leader in world-class, nurturing care and extraordinary outcomes in every pediatric and obstetric specialty, with care ranging from the routine to rare, regardless of a family’s ability to pay. Together with our Stanford Medicine physicians, nurses, and staff, we can be accessed through partnerships, collaborations, outreach, specialty clinics and primary care practices at more than 45 locations in Northern California and 100 locations in the U.S. western region. As a non-profit, we are committed to supporting our community – from caring for uninsured or underinsured kids, homeless teens and pregnant moms, to helping re-establish school nurse positions in local schools. Learn more at stanfordchildrens.org and on our Healthier, Happy Lives blog. You can also discover how we are Building the Hospital of the Future. Join us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.