A Story of Triumph

“No parents ever forget the day they’re told their child has cancer,” says Shirley Staples. That day began for her family in 1998 with a routine visit to a Brooklyn pediatrician for her then-four-year-old son, Simon Staples-Vangel. It ended late the same evening at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Dr. Cheung and Simon Staples-Vangel
Pediatric oncologist Nai-Kong Cheung and his patient Simon Staples-Vangel in 2002

It’s a story that begins as every parent’s worst nightmare but turns into a tale of triumph for Simon, his family, and for the entire MSK neuroblastoma team because, against all odds, Simon is now a 21-year-old junior at Syracuse University majoring in Television-Radio-Film and English Textual Studies.
 

Chapter One: Simon’s Story Begins 

On a Saturday in May, Donald Vangel took his son to the family’s pediatrician to see about a bruise that refused to heal. The doctor wanted Simon to have a blood test immediately. Hours later, as he slept in his stroller in the emergency room of a local hospital, physicians told his parents that they were certain their little boy had cancer.
 
Simon’s pediatrician didn’t miss a beat: “Put Simon in a cab and go to MSK — now,” Shirley recalls her saying. Their arrival was unceremonious. “We literally said to the man at the door, ‘Hi, we’re here to see the pediatric cancer doctor.’”
 
At ten o’clock that evening, pediatric oncologist Kim Kramer, a member of MSK’s neuroblastoma team, arrived at the Urgent Care Center to examine Simon and admit him to the hospital. Tests confirmed that he had neuroblastoma, a rare cancer of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease, most commonly found in young children, usually begins in the nerve tissues in the neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, or adrenal glands. The cancer may also spread to other areas of the body, including the bones and bone marrow.
 
In Simon’s case, it had indeed traveled throughout his body. In fact, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that his marrow had been almost entirely replaced by neuroblastoma cells. The Staples-Vangel family — along with the MSK neuroblastoma team, including Dr. Kramer, pediatric oncologists Nai-Kong Cheung and Brian Kushner, and surgeon Michael LaQuaglia — faced a dire situation and long odds. But everyone confronted the challenge head-on.
 

Chapter Two: Treatment

Simon endured an intense clinical trial protocol that included seven rounds of chemotherapy during which, after the fifth round, a monoclonal antibody called 3F8 was introduced to control the disease in his marrow. (The antibody 3F8 specifically recognizes a protein present on neuroblastoma cells.) Following the final round of chemotherapy, Simon underwent a “hot antibody” treatment in which 3F8 was used to carry radiation — in the form of radioisotope iodine-131 — to any remaining tumor cells. Because this therapy damages bone marrow, he then underwent a bone marrow rescue.  In addition, he had surgery to remove his primary tumor and radiation therapy. He also received six cycles of oral Accutane®, a form of vitamin A.
 
Finally, in the summer of 2001, at age seven, Simon completed treatment.
 
“It’s hard to remember everything because I was so young, but I do recall lots of bits and pieces — especially things we did to have fun in order to forget about the pain,” he says. “I remember the evening we arrived at MSK when Dr. Kramer was examining me. She told me she had to check my heartbeat — then put her stethoscope on my forehead, which I found hilarious! She pretended to be confused and asked me what was so funny. I’m sure I was traumatized after being poked and prodded by so many doctors, but she made me laugh. It’s my first memory of MSK, and it’s still a strong one.”
 
Thankfully, those memories remain in the past: Since the end of his treatment, Simon has had no evidence of disease. He does see Kevin Oeffinger, Director of MSK’s Adult Long-Term Follow-Up Program, annually for a checkup. The program provides follow-up care for adults of all ages who had cancer during their childhood, adolescent, or young-adult years.
 

Chapter Three: Kids Walk for Kids with Cancer

In 2001, while Simon was undergoing treatment, his sister, Sophie, and her eighth grade homeroom at Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn organized a walkathon in Prospect Park as their community service project to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at MSK. Sophie’s classmates were aware that her brother had cancer and wanted to help other children like him. The following year, Sophie — today married and a lawyer — enlisted friends from other schools to join and named the event Kids Walk for Kids with Cancer.
 
Simon remembers the first time he participated: “I think my dad had to carry me most of the way in 2001 because I didn’t have the energy — but I was there!”

During high school, Simon served on the Kids Walk Student Board and was its chair in his senior year. In 2003, Kids Walk moved to Central Park, and he and his family have been at every walk since. They have also stayed involved in other ways, providing input to the current leaders of Kids Walk and continuing to fundraise each year. 
 
Since its inception, the event has raised more than $2.6 million and companion events in North Carolina, New Jersey, and Connecticut have been added.
 
Dr. Cheung, Simon Staples-Vangel and Simon's sister, Sophie at a Kids Walk for Kids with Cancer event

Chapter Four: Shared Joy and Love 

“A young man like Simon is what it’s all about for me and my colleagues,” says Dr. Cheung. “He went through a great deal to get where he is today, but to know he is now one year from his college graduation fills all of us with great joy. And Kids Walk for Kids with Cancer has provided much-needed support for our research efforts for pediatric cancers, to quickly develop novel drugs that are increasingly effective and less toxic than what Simon had back in 1998.”
 
The multi-modality treatment strategies developed by Dr. Cheung and his MSK colleagues — particularly targeted therapy with monoclonal antibodies — have dramatically improved survival for patients with metastatic neuroblastoma and immunotherapy has become the worldwide standard of care for children with metastatic neuroblastoma. “Twenty-five years ago, curing high risk metastatic neuroblastoma was unthinkable; today, more than 50 percent of these patients are expected to survive,” says Dr. Cheung as he looks back at the strides made at MSK that have contributed to these improved outcomes.
 
“The amount of love my family and I have for MSK is, simply put, immense,” Simon says. “Having been through it and being lucky enough to come out the other side, we know that pediatric cancer is an insanely tough tragedy for a family to endure. We’ve known far too many families who have had a child taken from them before they were even able to reach puberty. It’s heartbreaking, and MSK’s commitment to saving these kids is amazing.”
 
“It’s because of people who support MSK’s research and participate in events like Kids Walk that kids like me are able to survive, go to college, and live full lives,” he concludes. “And the intelligence, compassion, and dedication of the neuroblastoma team is almost indescribable. You meet any one of them and you know you’re in the presence of greatness.”
 
Learn more about Kids Walk For Kids with Cancer.

Photo (bottom): Dr. Cheung, Simon, and Simon’s sister, Sophie Staples, in 2013