When you picture a child with cancer, what do you see? Perhaps it’s the carefully crafted and sold feel-good image of a smiling, bald-headed child at Disney World, who gets better and lives happily ever after. What Tom Mitchell sees is the parents of children who have to watch as chemotherapy, derived from a chemical warfare agent, is pumped into their child’s body, a medicine so toxic that some parents have to wear protective gear just to change their child’s diaper. He sees parents who are holding their children’s hair back as they puke, holding their hands as their hair falls out, and being forced to make life or death decisions for their child in an instant. He should know. He lost his daughter, Shayla, to cancer.
After Shayla passed away, Tom founded StillBrave Childhood Cancer Foundation to help parents deal with the everyday horror and heartbreak of cancer treatments and expenses. “StillBrave’s mission is to provide non-medical support to children with cancer and their families,” says Tom. They provide help with gas and grocery cards, rent and utilities assistance, car and home repairs, and way too many funerals.
The Birth of StillBrave
When Tom was a kid, he used to be a boxer. Although he wasn’t great at it, he could throw a straight punch and hit pretty hard. When Shayla was diagnosed with cancer, he began boxing as a sort of therapy to help himself deal with her treatment. While he was working out one day, he met professional boxer Jimmy Lange, who then met his daughter. Jimmy and Shayla became friends, which led to Jimmy watching Tom fight, which led to Tom becoming a professional boxer at the age of 40. For his first fight, Shayla walked him to the ring. He was knocked out in the second round, but he made a lot of money, and since he’s gotten his ass beat for free before, he considered that a win.
Between his first and second fights, Shayla passed away. “It was at that time that we coined the term ‘still brave,’ which was something that my daughter had said to me,” says Tom. “That was the birth of StillBrave, right before that second fight.”
Renegades of Cancer
Although Shayla is gone, Tom hasn’t stopped fighting. “She’s not coming back,” says Tom. “No matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I wish, no matter how hard I sweat, I’m not going to bring her back.” He’s not fighting for his daughter. He’s fighting for yours.
“We consider ourselves to be renegades. That’s our tagline,” says Tom. The inspiration for the tagline is from a Rage Against the Machine song. As renegades, they don’t do things that an average foundation might do. They do things like put on a punk rock concert every year. “We open it up to families who want to come out and forget about life for a night, take a shot of tequila and shake their ass and have a great time,” says Tom. They have a Carnival of Kindness, a big carnival that’s free of charge not only for children with cancer, but for children with other diagnoses or children with no diagnoses.
Tom also does ultra running, and will be running a 200-mile marathon in August of 2018. Each of those 200 miles is dedicated to a child who is fighting cancer or who has lost their battle to cancer. He carries their pictures with him, and when he feels tired and like he can’t go on, he looks at those pictures.
People often send Tom messages asking if they can go to the hospitals with him and hang out with the children. What they don’t seem to realize is that kids in the hospital are sick. Go figure. Most chemotherapies are done on an outpatient basis. Children are only hospitalized for very toxic treatments, fevers, and complications. “So when I go to the hospital, the kids are really, really, REALLY sick,” says Tom. “One of the common misconceptions is that we go to the hospital and it’s fun. We’re not going to the hospital and playing guitar and singing ‘Kumbaya.’” Just like cancer isn’t a happy kid at Disney World, it’s also not a fun slumber party at the hospital.
People also like to ask Tom how he does it all. His most candid response is, how could they not? “Kids are dying at an alarming rate,” he says. “The ones that aren’t dying are being butchered by some of the medicines that we’re giving them.” Standing by and doing nothing is saying that this is okay with you. “If you don’t act upon that, you’re saying to yourself and the world ‘that’s acceptable to me.’ It’s not okay.”
You don’t have to be a big corporation or have a lot of money to get involved. Look at Tom, for example. “I’m nobody special. I’m a tattooed knucklehead,” he says. When Shayla died, he wondered to himself why somebody didn’t do something. Then he realized that he is somebody. “Advocate. Donate. Do SOMETHING. Anybody can offer thoughts and prayers. I don’t want you to be anybody,” Tom says. “I want you to be somebody. I want you to do something.”
One way you can get involved is through the upcoming 200-mile marathon. You can step up and sponsor a mile. At the StillBrave website, you can see all 200 children that they are honoring and sponsor their mile. If you are a runner, you can run in your own community and add your miles to the children. StillBrave’s goal this year is to raise 500 thousand dollars. And they will. “I don’t know how it’s going to happen, I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but we’re going to do it,” says Tom. Maybe it will be with the help of everyday people like you and me, the renegades who will change the course of history.