The legacy of a Duluth teenager who died this spring is inspiring a historic level of fundraising that could help unlock the mysteries of the rare cancer that killed her.
More than $1.1 million has been pledged in the memory of Nathalia “Nat” Hawley to a team in the Great Cycle Challenge USA fundraiser. Proceeds will fund University of Minnesota research on osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer with a grim survival rate. The prior team record for the Challenge, which involves pledges to cyclists each June, was $841,000.
“This kind of money is really crucial,” said Logan Spector, a child cancer researcher at the U. “It might be a drop in the bucket for breast cancer, but for a rare cancer like osteosarcoma, it can be transformational.”
Hawley received her diagnosis in 2016 at age 12, at which point the cancer had already spread from her thigh bone to her lungs. She became a bubbly advocate during treatment for cancer research, promoting the Great Cycle Challenge as well as Love Your Melon, an apparel business started by two University of St. Thomas students that donates 50% of its profits to pediatric cancer research and therapy.
Hawley died in April at age 15. While she was optimistic throughout treatment, she talked early on about finding ways to share her story and her talents for research fundraising, said her mother, Katy Hawley.
“We had never talked about death,” her mother said. “It was never in our vocabulary. We were always on the positive, but she was smart. She knew it could happen. She was like, ‘If I were to die, Mom, I would want to be able to leave a legacy.’ ”
Survival odds haven't increased in 30 years for osteosarcoma, a cancer that afflicts 400 adults and 400 children each year. But understanding of the condition has improved, in part through fundraisers in the memory of Zach Sobiech to support initial U research. Spector said that financed a trial of a treatment that targeted a specific molecule in the body that was thought to play a role in the cancer.
Funds raised in Hawley's memory will support new research on ways to activate the immune system so that it fights the cancer on its own, and on ways to detect the cancer early on.
“We probably will never get to prevention, but we might be able to get to early detection,” Spector said.
Donations to Team Nat, or others, can be made at greatcyclechallenge.com.
Hawley would be amazed by the donations made already, her mother said. “The amount of support for Nat has been overwhelming.”