#TeamCameronGray: The Hilliard family’s mission to find a cure for childhood cancer

#TeamCameronGray: The Hilliard family’s mission to find a cure for childhood cancer

Clary (right) and her husband Robert Gray, with children Aubrey and Cameron at Glacier National Park in September 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Clary Hilliard Gray

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He’s been through dozens of rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. He’s temporarily moved to another state to participate in trial treatments for the cancer on his brain. It’s a lot for anyone, let alone a boy who just turned 8.

But one recent bit of news for Cameron Gray hit hard:

“Yeah, Cameron,” his dad, Robert Gray, told him while they talked to me a few weeks ago. “We’d have petting zoos and pizza parties at St. Jude if it weren’t for coronavirus.”

Cameron’s spent much of the past six months at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. He’s part of a clinical trial to treat medulloblastoma, a cancer of the central nervous system that accounts for about 20% of all childhood cancers.

It’s maybe the best place a boy could be for the worst situation. But to know that it could be better, to know that in non-COVID times there would’ve been dang pizza parties and petting zoos?

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“What?!?” Cameron says.

“I know!” his dad says. “You got ripped off.”

Why it matters: A child can cure us adults of the nonsense we worry about. And over the past few weeks, Cameron has given clarity to a great many grown people in Charlotte.

  • He’s inspired people to give nearly $90,000 toward cancer research and family assistance in less than a month.

The backstory: Cameron’s from a family with a name you likely know. His mom is Clary Hilliard Gray and his grandmother is Liz Hilliard, the duo who built the Hilliard Studio Method. Their workouts empowered thousands in Charlotte, mostly women, who consider HSM as much a part of their routine as brushing their teeth.

The Hilliards are a “modern family,” as they say, and that’s a big part of this story.

Liz Hilliard’s partner, Lee Kennelly, has two teenage kids. One Sunday last month, Lee was out on a run with her daughter Anna. They passed a sign promoting the St. Jude Walk/Run set for Sept. 25. People could form teams and raise money toward a cure for childhood cancer.

Just 13, Anna stopped and told her mom, “We should do that for Cam.”

That was a Sunday. The event was six days later, on Saturday. Lee set up the web page, and they posted it to their personal social media feeds.

  • They set the goal at $1,500.
  • Within two hours they had $2,500.
  • Within five days they had $75,000.

“We have many high fundraising teams that work hard for months to accomplish what Team Cameron Gray has done in less than a week,” Lora Stearns, a regional development specialist with the organization that raises funds for St. Jude, tells me.


Team Cameron Gray

Team Cameron Gray, at the St. Jude Walk/Run on Sept. 25.

This time last year, Clary and Robert and their kids, Aubrey and Cameron, were just getting home from a months-long trip out west.

They kept it simple. They took about a week’s worth of clothes for each of them. They drove through Montana, Utah, Wyoming, California. They rode horses, fly-fished, and watched sunset upon sunset. Clary chronicled their trip in photos and words.

They called it “Into the Gray Wide Open,” and they nicknamed themselves the Gray Grizzlies. The trip was, at the time, the story of a lifetime.

Four months later, Cameron started feeling sick. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the trouble.

  • “It was just hell,” Clary says. “He went from a regular kid to feeling awful.”

The diagnosis in late March took their breath.

Doctors outlined the process for them – surgery, radiation, chemo.

The surgery was the next day. The surgeon, Dr. Erin Kiehna at Novant Health, became a hero to the family after a six-hour procedure to remove the tumor.

  • “The fact that she could do that surgery without doing any collateral damage is incredible,” Robert says.

After that, when doctors told Clary and Robert that Cameron was eligible for a clinical trial, they packed up and moved to Memphis on April 7. Didn’t even think twice about it.

If their big adventure had done anything for them, it showed them how easy it was to pick up and go, especially for the ones you love.

“That western trip was the greatest thing we’ve done as a family,” Robert says. “And the greatest thing we could’ve done before our lives took this bizarre turn.”


Clary Hilliard Gray and Cam

Clary and Cam. Photo: Courtesy Clary Hilliard Gray

During a zoom call with me a couple of weeks ago, Cameron was sitting in a chair doing artwork. Robert’s eyes watered up numerous times. Clary bit her bottom lip and smiled whenever Cameron started talking.

Like when Robert said chemotherapy had been easier than radiation, Cameron said that no, “awake radiation” was actually better.

They nodded to that, too. Watching your child get sedated never gets easy — not even after 30 times.

Before going under, Cameron always looks up and says, “OK, goodnight, Mommy. I love you.” Sometimes he’s screaming and angry when he comes to. Other times he’s just groggy. Every time, it’s hard to witness.

  • “You just wish that you could do it for him,” Robert says.

Parents are wired to stand between their children and threats. When I walk on the sidewalk with my son, I walk on the side closest to the road, scanning for things left and right. Don’t even think twice about it.

But you can’t stand between your kid and cancer. You can move to another state and shower him with the best treatments possible. You can adopt pet snake named Django for him. But you can’t go under for him.

Throughout the past few weeks as I’ve talked to and texted with Clary, all my questions swirled down to one: How on earth do you manage any of this?

You reprogram, she says. You read and learn. Clary has a sticker that reads, “I’m not a doctor; I’m a cancer mom.”

“When things get rough I say, ‘Nothing lasts forever,’” Clary says. “I used to not like that [saying], because it was a negative thing. But when you’re going through hell it’s a positive thing.”

Says Robert: “Clary and I are both long-term planners. Taking things in short increments — I’ve never really liked the one-day-at a time approach. But now I get it. Every day of chemo is one more day behind us.

  • “We’re staying focused on the long-term goal. We’re planning for Cameron’s Triumphant Return.”

The modern Hilliard family

Lee Kennelly (left in red pants) and her kids Kevin (far left) and Anna (middle); and Clary Hilliard Gray (dress) with her kids Aubrey (middle left) and Cam being Cam (right). Photo: Courtesy of the family

The donations keep coming.

Earlier this month, family friends and their kids set up a lemonade stand in front of their Charlotte home to raise money for #teamcamerongray.

A stranger stopped in a truck with a trailer toting heavy tools. He looked worn out from a day’s work. The kids’ mom greeted him and offered him a beer. He said no.

  • Just a glass of the lemonade, he said, and a bag of Fritos.
  • They gave him the lemonade and Fritos and told them why they were raising money.
  • He handed over a crisp $100 bill.

When he walked away, they got his card. It said his name was Sonny. He runs a tree service company out of Waxhaw, and if anyone ever needs him they posted the info here.

These are the things Clary and Robert think about now.

They believe they’ll make it through the cancer treatments. If the things keep progressing, Cameron’s Triumphant Return should be in February.

Then the Gray Grizzlies will be in the same house again with 10-year-old Aubrey, who’s staying with Liz and Lee for the time being. (Clary calls Lee “the best mom I know.”)

They think about wider-reaching meaning now, too. Like how in these times when it seems like everyone’s at odds, hundreds of people rallied around a boy they barely know — family members, workout partners, the person who took care of young Aubrey’s summer camp, a guy named Sonny with a crisp $100 bill.

And Anna — Cameron’s grandmother’s partner’s daughter — just 13 years old. When she was filling out the form to start the fundraiser, she had to describe her relationship with the patient. She didn’t know she didn’t know what to write, so she just typed “aunt.” (“We need to come up with a new vocabulary for this family,” Liz tells me.)

The main reason Anna joined the cross country team this year is that she wants to improve as a soccer player.

  • And being on the cross country team is the reason she and her mom were out running that Sunday last month.
  • And being on that run last month is the reason they passed the sign for the St. Jude Walk/Run.
  • And passing that sign is the reason she spoke up and said, “We should do that for Cam.”
  • And speaking up to say that is the reason the fundraiser they set up hauled in $75,000 in a week, and $85,000 overall.

Point being, if this family’s learned anything, and if this family can teach the rest of us anything, it’s to embrace the belief that one small thing could always lead to another small thing could lead to a bigger thing. And maybe one day, a cure.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Lora Stearns’ name. And to correct the name of the pet snake, Django.

 

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