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Kicking Cancer

Springfield teen is spokesman for Kicks for Cancer campaign.

Joel Wagner of Springfield doesn't remember much about being sick. He was almost 3 years old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Now, at age 13, he shows no sign of the disease.

"Acute is a very fast-acting cancer," said Joel's father, Dave Wagner. "It's the most prevalent type, especially in children."

In acute lymphocytic leukemia, he said, mutated white blood cells are produced so quickly they "crowd out" all other cells in the blood. Bone marrow, where blood cells are created, stops producing healthy white blood cells, used to fight off infections and illnesses, making the patient unable to become healthy or destroy the defective cells.

"I was sick for about two years," Joel said, sitting on his family's brown leather couch, playing with Nike, their new black kitten. "I remember having spinal taps, but I didn't feel much pain."

The spinal taps tested for white cell counts in Joel's spinal fluid but also to make sure the disease had not spread to his brain, Wagner said.

"He was so young he doesn't remember, but it was very traumatizing for us," said Kara Wagner, Joel's mother, who was pregnant with the couple's third son at the time.

The family was contacted by Duke University in North Carolina to see if Kara Wagner would be interested in freezing a sample of the umbilical cord for its stem cells once Jared was born, revolutionary science at the time, she said. "They froze a sample in case we ever needed to do a stem cell transplant if he had relapsed." The sample is still on dry ice at the university, she said.

During some of the procedures and treatments, including bone marrow aspirations that drew bone marrow samples out of his hips, Joel was awake but completely sedated, eyes open but vacant.

"He just wasn't there," Kara Wagner said. She and her husband would take turns going with Joel to treatments, each going for a week or two on daily doctor trips until their hearts couldn't bear it any longer.

"The first goal was to eliminate the disease from his blood and bone marrow samples, but the treatment went on for two and a half years to make sure it wouldn't come back," said Dave Wagner. "Some strains are more likely to come back than others. We're going on nine years of being healthy," he said, the relief in his face as vivid now as it must have been upon hearing the news firsthand.

THE WAGNERS now spend most of their time running back and forth with soccer and football practice, with three active, healthy boys to be grateful for, their parents said.

"We've been involved in the Virginia Beach Relay for Life," said Dave Wagner. Joel enjoys the opportunity to give back to other sick children and families.

Through Kara Wagner's work with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Joel's love of soccer, the family was invited to attend D.C. United's Sept. 17 game against the Colorado Rapids Saturday, the team's kick off for the Kicks for Cancer program, which allows local soccer teams the chance to raise money for cancer research. Last year, teams from across the region raised $75,000 for this purpose.

"The kids get pledges for every time they kick a soccer ball, or people can give a flat donation," said Dave Wagner.

"I get to meet Josh Gros and Christian Gomez, who is the chair for the D.C. United Kicks for Cancer group," Joel said. "I've been playing soccer since I was 3 years old. I kept playing when I was getting treatment."

"He would play until his knees buckled," said Dave Wagner.

The entire family was invited to the game, where Joel was introduced as a junior captain for the team that night. He and another cancer survivor, a girl from Montgomery County, had been selected to give soccer fans the initiative to donate money to help fund research.

"In 1962, there was a zero percent survival rate for kids with leukemia," said Dave Wagner, pointing out how far research and treatment has come in the past 40 years.

Looking at Joel now, a student at Mark Twain Middle School in Alexandria and enrolled in the Gifted and Talent program there, "you'd never know he was sick," said Kara Wagner. "We've been really lucky. Joel's never had a relapse, he never had any kind of setbacks with his treatment. We've been so fortunate, now it's our time to give back and do our part to help other families."

Other teams from across the area can still sign up to participate in the Soccer Kicks for Cancer campaign, said Kyle Rothermel, a campaign assistant with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "This is a program we do every spring and fall season," he said. During the spring season, 56 teams raised $54,000 for cancer research, he said.

So far, 15 teams have signed up for the fall season, Rothermel said. "Kids make a pledge to kick a soccer ball a certain amount of times within a 10-day period," he said. The goal is to kick a ball 2,000 times in that week and a half outside of practices. Some teams will organize a 'juggle-a-thon' and make it "a real community event," he said. "We give the teams a lot of leeway on how they make the goals, but it's a fun thing for them to do. It shows the kids that if a bunch of them each do a little bit to help out, it can go a long way."