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Annual Pumpkin Patch helps cancer research funds grow

Oct. 25, 2018, 9:04 AM

Missy Cook and her sons, Cooper, seated, Colby, left, and Carson at the Cooper Trooper Foundation Pumpkin Patch, which the family created to raise funds for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. (photo by Wade Payne)

by Christina Echegaray

Each October, as Missy Cook helps unload trailers full of bright, plump pumpkins with hundreds of volunteers, she’s reminded why the Cooper Trooper Foundation Pumpkin Patch exists — because her son, Cooper, 10, is alive after surviving a rare cancer that was found when he was just 8 weeks old.

The annual Pumpkin Patch, which runs this year until Oct. 31, in Franklin, Tennessee, is a fundraising effort by the Cooper Trooper Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization named after her son, who quickly earned the nickname “Cooper the Trooper” early in life.

From the fundraiser, 100 percent of the profits go back into the Foundation to support a pediatric cancer research fund and other efforts set up with Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, as well as provide family support through a Courage Kit Program for the well siblings of children diagnosed with cancer. The foundation also recently pledged a donation to support changes to the outpatient clinic serving children, teens and young adults who are undergoing chemotherapy.

“With the expansion of the hospital and some of the new things they are doing that are so needed for the oncology floor, we wanted to be a part of that,” Cook said.

“I remember going to the clinic and sitting there when Cooper was 2, 3 and 4 years old with a child next to him who was sick and getting chemotherapy in a crowded room. It was heartbreaking. The program has grown so much and so many people go to Children’s Hospital for that treatment. I think it’s great that they will be expanding that space.”

Cooper’s journey began in 2008 at Children’s Hospital. Cook had been rocking and nursing then 8-week-old Cooper when she felt a lump on his neck near the jaw.

As a third-time mother, she believed it was a typical swollen lymph node, but to be safe, Missy and her husband, Rod, brought Cooper to the pediatrician the next day.

Unalarmed by the lump, the pediatrician — in what at the time seemed like an overabundance of caution — referred the family to Children’s Hospital radiology for scans of his head.

The Cooks were unprepared and stunned by what they learned next. Ushered into a private room, they were told a tumor consumed a third of the volume of Cooper’s head.

“I remember they said his head lit up like a Christmas tree on all the scans,” said Cook. “The tumor was in a tricky spot between the facial nerves.”

Later pathology reports confirmed the diagnosis of infantile fibrosarcoma — a very rare type of cancer that forms in connective tissue and typically occurs in infants younger than age 1. It is especially rare to find it in the head and neck. The tumor can be large and fast growing, but rarely spreads.

James Netterville, MD, Mark C. Smith Professor of Otolaryngology/ Head and Neck Surgery and director of Head and Neck Oncologic Surgery, performed the complicated surgery to remove the tumor, which was intertwined with intricate facial nerves and muscle in Cooper’s head.

Six months later, he removed all remaining cancerous areas found on follow-up scans.

“During all this, Rod and I had discussions about ‘why us’ like everyone does. God has a reason for everything. There was a reason Cooper went through this,” Cook said. “We chose to take hard circumstances and make the most of it and do something for other families who have a different story or have a different outcome.”

That’s when they founded Cooper Trooper Foundation in 2009.

First, they set out to help siblings of children diagnosed with cancer by creating The Courage Kit, which provides a book and other special items such as a T-shirt, journal, and stuffed duck for the siblings.

They realized the need when their two other children, Carson, now 15, and Colby, now 12, went through Cooper’s illness. Siblings can feel left out of the process, and it was important to the Cooks to be sure their other children were included.

What started as Cook packaging and sending the kits from her home grew into a whole buzzing operation requiring they be packaged and sent from a fulfillment center. Cooper Trooper Pumpkin Patch then began as a fundraising effort for the foundation, and subsequently the Cooper Trooper Endowment for Cancer Research was funded at Children’s Hospital as the Cooks realized the need for more funding for research specific to childhood cancers.

The Pumpkin Patch started with the Cooks unloading pumpkins with a few friends and has grown into a large month-long operation with multiple trailer truck loads of pumpkins and requiring over 200 volunteers to unload. People from all over Middle Tennessee go there to buy their fall pumpkins.

Cooper, thankfully, never required chemotherapy. He had scans and follow-up appointments until he was 6 and was deemed cancer free after that point. He loves people, basketball, baseball and the video game Fortnight.

“He’s a healthy 10-year-old in fourth grade. You would not know by looking at him what he went through,” Cook said. “He has a slight scar, but you can’t see it unless you know to look for it. He had to have some speech therapy because of weakness in the facial nerves and muscle as a result of the surgeries.

“The reason we do this is because God blessed him with his health, and it’s our turn in the process to help other people,” she said.

As the Cooper Trooper Foundation grew, Missy Cook was hit with a tragedy about five years ago. Rod, whom she met, fell in love with and married while in graduate school in Alabama, died unexpectedly from sudden cardiac arrest.

Suddenly, she was thrust into being a single mother to three heartbroken boys. Despite the heartache of losing the love of her life, she felt compelled — for her boys and Rod — to continue the foundation.

“I have to believe God does have a plan and that for whatever reason this is my story, and I have to embrace that. Cooper Trooper gives us some excitement and joy to know we are helping others,” Cook said.

“Rod was so passionate about the foundation for years, that to continue on with that keeps a piece of him alive. I think he would be thrilled to know how much it has grown and how far it has come.”

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