Elijah Aschbrenner is wearing his hair red to match the color of the number on Martin Truex’s race car.
At age 9, after being diagnosed with cancer on May 23, Elijah went through 30 rounds of radiation on his neck last summer. In September, he underwent a 10-hour surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and to reconstruct the neck, which involved removing vertebrae and replacing them with rods and screws.
The Concord fourth-grader was still wearing a brace until about a month ago. With only four weeks of chemotherapy remaining, “We could see the finish line,” says his mother, Becky Hughes.
Then, Elijah started having pains in his right side. Tests revealed fluid in the lining of his right lung. When doctors removed the fluid on Easter Sunday, they told Hughes that Elijah’s cancer had returned.
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“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” she says, although the family’s burden is a little lighter because Elijah doesn’t just talk about being strong. He walks the walk and says nothing will stop him from doing exactly that on May 13 with eight other children who show similar courage.
They’ll join 12 adults – most of them NASCAR drivers, their spouses or girlfriends – on the runway at the sixth annual Catwalk for a Cause fashion show in Mooresville. The event raises money to benefit pediatric cancer research and help families of children being treated at Levine Children’s Hospital.
The runway show features women’s spring fashions from local boutiques. But the stars are the Catwalk Heroes: kids, all of whom have had or are still battling cancer. They’ll wear the latest styles from Belk and get catwalk escorts by motorsports stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne.
Elijah recalls his reaction when learning he’ll be joined by Earnhardt: “I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe I’m going to be walking with one of these millionaires.’”
The Cox Mill Elementary student may be the easiest to spot at the event, with bright red hair and red pants as part of his beach ensemble. He chose the motif because NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr., whose foundation sponsors the event, has a red number on his race car.
Elijah’s mother says that, despite the second diagnosis and that he may face more radiation treatments or clinical trials out of state, “there was never a question he would be on that runway.”
Says Elijah: “If I had to talk to somebody (who had been diagnosed with cancer), I’d say, ‘Keep on fighting, and you’ll make it through this.’”
Sandy Plemmons, executive director of the MTJ Foundation, says that’s the kind of inspiration that will be on display at the show.
“We do this because all kids matter,” she says, “and it’s so critical that we find better, less toxic drugs and effective solutions so they can grow up and be healthy.”
She says the remaining $100 tickets are in Rows 3 through 7 at an event where “there’s not a bad seat in the house.” Those tickets include valet parking with complementary appetizers and drinks. The $500 tickets in the VIP areas are long gone, she says – not surprising for a show that netted more than $100,000 last year, 10 times what it brought in for the first event in 2010.
Auction items in the fundraising effort include an all-inclusive Jamaica vacation for two, a signed jersey by former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, a lot of 12 autographed baseballs by former New York Yankees and original art.
As contributions grow for the event, so does the foundation’s goals. Plemmons says MTJ is embarking on a three-year capital campaign to raise $300,000 to establish a clinical nurse practitioner for Phase I and Phase II trials so families don’t have to travel out of state for these trials.
Hughes is excited about those possibilities for Elijah and other children, particularly because funding for pediatric cancer is lacking. “Pediatric cancer only gets 4 percent of government funding,” she says. “There are only three approved drugs that are specific to children with regard to cancer.”
Kristina Mahony of Wesley Chapel has high hopes for the event and her 4-year-old daughter, Maddie, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in June 2013. She says Maddie – due to have her last treatment in August – is a little too young to be in the show but may be a participant next year.
Mahony and her husband, Stephen, will see the show for the first time and get a feel for what Maddie may experience. “I can’t wait to see it,” she says. “It’s such a great tribute to these kids.”
This year’s Catwalk for a Cause theme is “Hold Out a Hand,” a song written by Maia Sharp and recorded by Edwin McCain that will be included in the show’s video finale. Any time someone downloads the song from iTunes during the six months after the event, 100 percent of proceeds will be used to fight childhood cancer.
Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at email@example.com.
Want to go?
Catwalk for a Cause will be held 6-10 p.m. May 13 at Merinos Home Furnishings, 500 S. Main St., Mooresville. Tickets are $100; VIP tickets are sold out. For information, go to www.catwalk4acause.org.
Watch the Catwalk live on Speed51. Interviews and behind-the-scenes coverage will be shown 6:30-7:30 p.m., followed by the live runway show at 7:30. You can log in with a $10, tax-deductible donation at www.MartinTruexJrFoundation.org