D.C. couple keeps son's memory alive through foundation to help kids with cancer

Peter and Victoria Brown are keeping the memory of their son, Mattie, alive by creating a foundation to help other children suffering from cancer.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Peter and Victoria Brown stood across from the Capitol building getting ready, looking over the list of members of Congress they planned to visit that day.

First, they would meet with an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Then it was on to a meeting with an aide to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and a sit-down with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

In more than six hours of meetings with nearly a dozen people, the Browns repeated the same talking points they now know by heart: Cancer is the leading cause of death in children; cancer is diagnosed in almost 13,500 children and adolescents each year; one of five will die of it. And Congress should appropriate $30 million in research money, they would say, to save these children. As Peter Brown told Van Hollen, "In a different world, maybe my son could have survived."

Peter and Victoria Brown of the District were among about 100 parents from across the country who visited the Capitol on June 22 as a part of the CureSearch cancer foundation's Reach the Day event, in which parents and families of children with cancer lobbied for support.

This is the Browns' new reality, one without the little brown-haired boy they call Mattie.

Matthew Brown was 7 when he died in September, after a nearly two-year battle with bone cancer. His parents have created a foundation, the Mattie Miracle Cancer Foundation, in the hope that in providing help to other families dealing with childhood cancer, they can find answers, and maybe even solace.

Childhood cancers have spawned a hodgepodge of efforts, from research organizations invested in finding treatments or a cure, to neighborhood walks raising money for families. The Browns hope that their foundation, which will support research on the disease that took Mattie's life, can help health-care providers better understand what families are going through and offer families support to deal with cancer's emotional and physical toll.

Some scoff that it's too lofty an ambition, and history doesn't bode well for their cause. Most family-initiated foundations tend to fizzle after time, amid waning support. But the Browns say their mission is not just a way to assuage their grief. Peter Brown likens it to starting a business; Victoria Brown says it's like raising a child. For them, it's a way of trying to find a reason behind Mattie's death.

"We can't change what happened," Peter Brown said. "We can learn from it and do something to change it. That's my intent: to try and find some meaning in this."

* * *

Matthew Brown was described by his father as the "picture of perfect health" -- a skinny, athletic 6-year-old with a quick smile and his mother's eyes. He was at a tennis camp in the summer of 2008 when he complained of an achy right arm.

Victoria Brown thought it could be a sprain, nothing major, and took him to the pediatrician. An X-ray revealed a problem: a tumor on his upper arm. That day, over the phone in the hospital waiting room, she was told it was osteosarcoma, a type of malignant tumor typically found in adolescents. During another X-ray, technicians accidentally captured part of his left arm in the scan, where they found another tumor. Doctors ordered a full-body scan; they found four tumors.

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