Published on Nov 29, 2021

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Doctor John Whyte, the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. We spend a lot of time talking about cancer-- cancer in adults. What we don't spend enough time on is talking about pediatric cancer-- cancer in kids. And I want to change that today. Here's a couple of things to keep in mind.

Childhood cancer research is consistently underfunded. Less than 4% of the federal budget for cancer research is dedicated to childhood cancer. Each day, 43 children are diagnosed with cancer. You add that up, 16,000 children every year are diagnosed with cancer, resulting in nearly 2,000 kids per year.

It's the leading cause of death in American children. So there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of raising money for funding, research, as well as addressing the aspects of living with cancer as a child.

So today, I'm delighted to be joined by one of those advocates out there making a difference. She is Caryn Freiberger, a former Brown University gymnast and mom of Eloise who was diagnosed with childhood cancer. This sparked the Handstand Walk with Eloise movement that is now viral in the gymnastics community on Instagram.

Handstand Walk with Eloise is an offshoot of MSK's kids walk program. Because this is the gymnastics community, they naturally decided they should walk on their hands. The typical handstand walk involves raising money, and then the gymnast count how many laps across the gymnastics floor they can walk in a relay. Once they're done, they challenge another gym to beat it.

Next year, all the gyms will hold their event at the same time to see who can go the farthest. She expects at least 100 gyms to participate, and she hopes it inspires kid's communities everywhere to aspire to community service. It's really a privilege to welcome you, Caryn, today. Thanks for taking the time.

CARYN FREIBERGER: Thank you so much for having me, John.

JOHN WHYTE: Well let's start off with, I'm sure you're busy working, you're a mom, a spouse. Why did you decide to take your free time essentially and start this charity?

CARYN FREIBERGER: It's a great question. Let me start with a little bit of a selfish side that it's very cathartic for me to do this. And as a parent confronted with cancer, you find yourself in a very uncomfortable position, very foreign to me of not being able to help your child. And it's that lack of control was especially hard for my type A personality.

But I took comfort in knowing that she was receiving the best care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Kids Hospital-- the doctors, the nurses, warm smiles greeting us every morning that we were there. And so, when I was searching for a way to have an impact, I learned about kids walk for MSK Kids. The event provided a platform to get 100% of much needed donations into the hands of doctors and researchers, and these were people I trusted. I've met with them. I knew their faces, and I wanted to help them advance treatment for children everywhere.

JOHN WHYTE: Now why a handstand walk? I've got to tell you, it's very creative. I, personally, could not do it. I'm sure, even as a child. But where did you think of that? Did you come up with it? Did Eloise come up with it? Who came up with this great idea of walking on your hands? Which is classically, I guess, very gymnast.

CARYN FREIBERGER: Eloise is just three. So it wasn't her.

JOHN WHYTE: I thought, creative, her early age, yeah.

CARYN FREIBERGER: Yeah, showing a bright future already. But basically, I mean, our community was incredibly supportive of our fundraising efforts, especially in COVID when Eloise was in treatment, which was really the height of COVID. There was little physical help that our community could provide. And so when we started fundraising, friends and family and childhood friends came out of the woodwork to support us.

And one of those people was my childhood coach. And with some of her current gymnasts, we came up with the concept of literally flipping it on its head, the MSK Kids Walk on its head and walking on people's hands. And it's been really great to reconnect with the gymnastics community.

And I think it's one of those things where gymnasts love to walk on their hands. It's Something they routinely do. You'll notice that when gymnasts take pictures at tourist sites, it's often a picture of them on their hands. And who doesn't enjoy watching people do that and walk on their hands? It's something that catches people's eye.

JOHN WHYTE: Now tell our viewers where does the money go?

CARYN FREIBERGER: So the money goes-- 100% of the money goes to Memorial Sloan Kettering Kids, and that goes directly to funding pediatric cancer research there, which is why I really wanted to do something specifically with that organization.

JOHN WHYTE: I mentioned that it went viral. Are you surprised by that? How did you go from the first event to then doing this all over the country?

CARYN FREIBERGER: So I have to give credit. There are three girls at Infiniti Elite who served as tri-captains, reached out to their friends on many college teams and club teams across the country. And they started posting these amazing videos of NCAA gymnasts and club teams walking on their hands in coordination.

And that motivated me to talk to my local gym, which was Gotham Gymnastics In Brooklyn, and they've really generously embraced the concept with open arms. And I'm really excited to celebrate their fundraising efforts. They're doing a phenomenal job in really raising awareness. So it's just great to see.

JOHN WHYTE: And what's next for the Handstand Walk with Eloise?

CARYN FREIBERGER: So I've been super humbled by the support of the gymnastics community and so thankful for everything that they've done. I love the idea that a handstand walk is something that gymnasts routinely just do, and it's become a platform for the gymnastics community to come together to create some really powerful good, especially in a time, again, where the gymnastics community has gone through a lot of trauma.

And I want to onboard more gyms. I hope that we raise more awareness. I hope we raise more funds. And I think the sky's the limit for where this can go.

JOHN WHYTE: What surprised you about pediatric cancer when you learned about Eloise's diagnosis? Is it the fact that there's gaps in funding? that there's lack of knowledge about how widespread this still is for kids?

CARYN FREIBERGER: I think it was both of those things that you just mentioned. One was how many children there are at MSK and how many families I've been connected with. As soon as I started posting videos of Handstand Walk with Eloise, I had moms reach out to me from across the gymnastics community just alone, saying, oh, my daughter was just diagnosed or my daughter or my son is going through this experience."

And that was incredibly humbling and surprising. You don't hear of it often. But in reality, most communities are affected and know at least one person or child going through treatment or that was in treatment.

JOHN WHYTE: What else would you like viewers to know?

CARYN FREIBERGER: I think that it would be really great for people to walk away knowing that they can help. This isn't something that's unsolvable. There's really great breakthroughs that have happened in the adult cancer world. The adult cancer world gets a lot of fundraising. And that's a lot of national government funding. And I think that's something that we can change for pediatric cancer.

And there's no help that's too small. As I say to people, $10, $5, that all adds up. And I think we've proven that it does. I would love, if people were inspired, to go to kidswalkmsk.org. And there, they can find any team that inspires them, whether it's Handstand Walk with Eloise or any other team fundraising money. And you can search for different teams and read their stories.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, yours is an inspiring and powerful story as well, Caryn. And what I've learned over the years, it's always a group of parents sitting around their kitchen table, finding a solution for the problems that are addressing, particularly, their kids and their families. So I'm going to ask you to take out your crystal ball. Five years from now, your family is watching this video. What are they going to say?

CARYN FREIBERGER: That one chokes me up.

JOHN WHYTE: I know they're going to say, "thanks for all." I know that they're going to say thanks for all that you're doing, showing the courage and initiative to take this on and putting this as a priority in your life for Eloise and for your family.

CARYN FREIBERGER: Yes, I hope so. I hope that or I know they will be looking back and thinking, "wow, we did that." And feeling a sense of pride, accomplishment. And I hope, gosh, that that 4% number moves to just even a little bit higher of that national funding that pediatric cancer gets in addition to the money that we've been raised.

But hopefully, I know that we'll be looking back at this with a deep sense of pride. And Eloise as an eight-year-old is just the best thing to think about.

JOHN WHYTE: Caryn, It's activities like this that are going to make a difference. So Caryn, I want to thank you for all that you're doing and working with MSK and gyms around the country to raise awareness, to raise funds, to create advocacy for addressing pediatric cancer. Thank you.

CARYN FREIBERGER: Thank you so much for having me, John. And this adds to our story and this adds and helps. So thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.