Friday March 7, 2014; 02:25 pm EST
For the Love of Luca
Luca Assante will be three years old on June 20.
He and his two sisters, Isabella and Gabriella, live with their parents Lucy and Vinnie in Annapolis, not too far away from Grandpa Ray and Grandma Geraldine. Or from Lucy’s sister and her kids. Aunt Maria and Uncle Sal live in Dunkirk. The other dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins are spread out, many in Italy.
They are part of a large, loving family, a family that understands the need to stick together.
Especially for the children.
Especially for little Luca.
Luca was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer of the muscle, in April 2009, just before his second birthday. The little boy has been bravely fighting the disease since then. He’s not fighting it alone. While Luca undergoes month after month of treatment at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, his family has mobilized an Italian battalion to raise awareness and money for research and ultimately to find a cure for Luca’s cancer.
Luca was born a healthy child, with no problems other than the normal things that affect most children.
Just before his second birthday, he came down with a minor stomach virus. The next week he developed a particularly nasty diaper rash. His parents took him to the pediatrician, who gave them cream for the rash.
That night, the little boy could no longer walk.
“We took him to Anne Arundel hospital,” recalls Lucy Assante. “They examined him and sent us immediately to Hopkins. The doctors there told us Luca has cancer. I didn’t believe it. I told them No, you’re wrong. We’re not here for cancer. We’re here for a diaper rash.”
The diagnosis was a cancerous mass.
The nightmare had begun.
Luca first had to undergo six months of chemotherapy to reduce the mass to an operable size. Once small enough, it was surgically removed at Hopkins. Then Luca was sent to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he received proton beam radiation therapy for 27 days.
“He handled the radiation with no problems,” his mother says. “As of today, there is no evidence of any side effects.”
Following the radiation, Luca returned home to Annapolis, but not to a normal childhood.
“The doctors are being really aggressive, which is good,” Assante says. “Luca is undergoing intense chemotherapy. He goes into the hospital for five days, then comes home for two weeks, then back to the hospital for another five days.”
“He’s doing okay,” says Luca’s dad, Vinnie Assante. He is thankful that at the age of three, children don’t know what cancer means.
“Luca knows he had a boo-boo, the doctor took it out, and now he gets medicine to keep the boo-boo from coming back.”
Luca is home this week, having just finished his 47th round of chemotherapy. He has more rounds to go; the treatments will not end until September.
That doesn’t seem to matter to Luca.
“Luca doesn’t know what it means to take it easy,” Lucy says. “He’s two and a half years old. He’s got so much energy. The chemo does not knock him down, not at all.”
Luca plays with his sisters and his cousins. And he goes with his daddy to work almost every morning at the Italian Market, the family business.
His favorite toys are, in order of importance, his grandfather’s Smart Car, which Luca believes is really his, and, coming in a close second, “anything that has anything to do with Spider-Man.” His favorite food is broccoli. Actually rapini, the Italian version of the much-aligned vegetable. He also loves pasta with red sauce.
“Luca does not act or look like a sick child,” his mother says. Except for his little bald head.
“This is the fifth time he’s lost his hair,” she says. “But he doesn’t realize it’s the medicine. He just thinks Mommy cuts it.”
Luca undergoes regular scans, searching for any return of the disease. The little boy remains cancer-free. But you don’t need to tell him that. He already knows.
“He is the reason I can get through this,” Lucy says. “He tells me he’s fine. He says, Don’t worry Mommy, I have no more sarcoma.”
Finding a Cure
Childhood cancer is the second most common cause of death in children, surpassed only by accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every 100,000 children and teens between the ages of one and 14, 16 are diagnosed with cancer. Although the mortality rate is declining, three of those 16 will not survive to adulthood. The magic wand needed to reduce that number to zero comes in the form of research and new treatments. Still, funding is hard to come by.
“Pediatric cancer is not as common as adult cancers, but it’s devastating. When a child is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family is, in a sense, diagnosed,” says Stephanie Davis, spokeswoman for the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center Musculoskeletal Tumor Research Program. “Money goes to research for adult cancers, but very little goes to children’s cancer. We need to find a cure. We think we can do it, but we need to provide our researchers with the funds to do what they need to do.”
Luca’s family understands this need.
“There is not a lot of money for research on this rare cancer,” says Vinnie Assante. “We have learned that everything is experimental.”
So the family has gone into fundraising.
Love of Luca was established to raise money — and awareness. So far, Luca’s family and friends have donated more than $50,000 to the Kimmel research program.
“Last July we did the Hopkins Sarcoma Walk and raised $18,000,” says Lucy. “Then, with the help of a family friend, Morgan McCloud and her public relations firm, Chic Communications, we held a fundraiser in March and raised another $33,000.”
The Assantes want you to know that none of the money they raise is going to pay for Luca’s medical bills. They are lucky in that respect. They have health insurance. All of the money will be given to the Kimmel research program.
“We want to collect enough money to support research for this cancer,” says Lucy. “We don’t need the money. It’s all for a cure so nobody else has to go through what we’re going through.”
On May 11, Luca’s family presented the first of what they hope will be many checks to the Kimmel Center. Given the millions needed to fund cancer research, $33,000 is a drop in the bucket. But even drops can make a big splash.
To find a cure for childhood cancer, the big family has turned to recruits from the greater community.
Annapolitans got the first chance to suit up in March. Local celebrity clothing designer Christian Siriano contributed one of his original designs. That dress alone brought in $3,000.
The Italian Market — where Luca goes to work with his dad — has commissioned a special wine label, Luca Wine. Proceeds from the sale of the five varieties of Italian vino will be donated to the Kimmel research program. The wine is available at the Annapolis Market.
Now it’s Calvert’s turn. Luca’s great aunt is Maria Lubrano of Mama Lucia’s Italian restaurants. On May 23, she’s mustering her troops for a second silent auction to benefit research at Kimmel.
“We have had great response from the people and businesses in Calvert County,” Lubrano says. “We expect at least 200 people to come to our event.”
The highlight of the Mama Lucia fundraiser will be a silent auction. Lubrano excitedly rattles off a few of the items already donated.
“We’ll be auctioning a rockfish charter for six people, an all-inclusive six-day stay in Orlando in June, a Gucci watch, a two-night stay for four at the Gaylord Hotel at the National Harbor and tickets for Orioles, Redskins and Nationals games.”
At the end of the evening, the winner of a special raffle will be announced. That lucky ticket holder gets an autographed jersey belonging to Washington Capitals star, Alex Ovechkin.
But the real winners will be the children — those with and those who have yet to be diagnosed with cancer.
“The need to fund research is critically important,” says the Kimmel Center’s Davis. “Because we never know which dollar is going to flip us over to find a cure.”
Love for Luca: 5-9pm @ Mamma Lucia, 862 Costley Way, Prince Frederick. $100: