Ten months after Loudoun County fifth-grader Gabriella Miller died of an inoperable brain tumor, the cancer awareness and research foundation that she created with her family reached a poignant milestone: On Tuesday, the Smashing Walnuts Foundation presented its first grant, for $100,000, to pediatric cancer researchers at Children’s National Health System.
Gabriella, who became a widely known childhood cancer awareness and research advocate and a passionate public speaker in the final months of her life, was emphatic about her wish for her family and supporters to continue to fight for a cure for pediatric cancers.
“If I go, if I lose my battle, then I want other people to carry on with the war,” the 10-year-old told a documentary filmmaker weeks before she died in October.
Her family took that directive to heart, said Ellyn Miller, Gabriella’s mother.
“This is a huge milestone for us,” Miller said of the grant. “It was a dream of all of us, but especially of Gabriella’s.”
At a grant presentation Tuesday at Redskins Park in Ashburn, the Miller family’s nonprofit organization presented the $100,000 to Javad Nazarian of Children’s National Health System, formerly known as Children’s National Medical Center, in Washington.
Nazarian leads a research lab at the Children’s Research Institute that focuses on the study of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma — the aggressive, “terminal upon diagnosis” brain tumor that was discovered in Gabriella less than a year before she died, the Millers said. After Gabriella’s death, her parents donated her brain to Nazarian to support his research.
Eugene Hwang, a pediatric neuro-oncologist who attended to Gabriella during her illness, said she made a profound impression on the medical team that cared for her.
“All children are special, but there are some who are really that shining star,” he said. “That was her, that was her spirit. . . . She wanted to make a difference with this disease.”
And she is doing exactly that, he said, through the legacy of her foundation and the donation of her tumor to research.
“Just to look at some of the information that they’ve been able to gather in the lab, it’s so inspiring,” he said. “And this money . . . it might be a small drop when you look at the landscape of cancer funding, but what has been accomplished through one single girl’s dreams and wishes is amazing.”
Ellyn Miller said the grant is just one step in the foundation’s ongoing fight against the disease that took her daughter’s life. There have also been symbolic achievements, including a federal pediatric medical research bill named in Gabriella’s honor that was signed into law by President Obama in April. But the law does not mean that Congress must necessarily allocate funds to pediatric medical research, Miller said, and so she has redoubled her efforts to persuade lawmakers to support the cause.
“Cancer is public enemy number one for me. I’m gunning for it,” Miller said. “Every day, more kids are being diagnosed with cancer, and every day more kids are dying from cancer. And brain cancer has the highest mortality rate for cancers for children. Things need to be done.”
Since the foundation was formally launched a little more than a year ago, “we’ve exceeded what we thought we would [accomplish], and we’re thrilled with that,” Miller said. “Now our goals are to continue fundraising, to seek out other researchers and research hospitals that are doing cutting-edge work with childhood brain cancer. We want to be part of helping to make a difference.”