OC Girl’s Fatal Brain Tumor May Help Other Kids with Cancer

McKenna Wetzel died from brain cancer, but her living tissue donation is now key to the effort to find a cure

McKenna Wetzel was living the life of a happy and healthy 7-year-old girl, until she became sick at school one day.

The diagnosis was horrifying, according to the girl’s father David Wetzel.

“We were given the worst possible news,” he said. “That you have an inoperable brain tumor that we have no known treatment for.”

She was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, which is a rare cancer that entwines itself around the brain stem. Surgery is impossible without damaging the brain, and radiation helps only temporarily.

While McKenna fought for her life, the community rallied to help her with medical expenses. Friends held a block party, drawing thousands of people who turned out to hear McKenna sing.

“She sings a Katy Perry song, is terminally ill and there was not a dry eye in the street,” David Wetzel recalled.

Tens of thousand dollars were raised at the event but McKenna never was able to use that money. Within six months of her diagnosis, she was gone.

“To not know what your child is thinking at the end, to not know if she can hear you, she can’t speak to you, it’s very hard,” McKenna’s mother Kristine Wetzel said. “She knows we loved her, more than anything.”

But that is not the end of McKenna’s story.

She lives on.

A sample of her tumor was donated to a lab at Stanford University where scientists are developing cell lines from the still-living tissue and sending them to other research institutions to test new medicines in the lab.

The mission, according to Dr. Michelle Monje of Stanford University, is to find the cure that McKenna never received.

"There's very, very little tissue for study, and we have been able to get around that hurdle because of generosity of families like the Wetzels,” Monje said. “We've now shared cell lines with approximately 20 researchers throughout the world. I think it's stimulating some good work and that we're going to see new therapeutic options coming quicker."

In their grief, David and Kristine Wetzel formed the McKenna Claire Foundation. To date, it has raised more than $400,000 toward research for pediatric cancers.

“I’d rather have my kid back; I’d give the world for it. There’s nothing I can do to fix that,” David Wetzel said. “But to see another family go through this would be equally as painful, knowing that the wake of losing anybody is unfathomable.”

“For us it was a way to give her death a purpose, and her life a purpose as well,” Kristine Wetzel said.

A fundraiser for the foundation is scheduled for Sunday, May 5 in Huntington Beach.

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