When Ben Cushing was a freshman at Washington State University, he received a devastating diagnosis: hepatosplenic T-cell lymphoma (HSTCL), a rare and fatal form of blood cancer.
Ben’s parents, Alison and Scott Cushing, searched the internet for signs of hope, but were confronted with words like “fast,” “aggressive” and “no cure.” Then a family member stumbled upon Andrei Shustov, M.D., Fel. ’06, UW associate professor in the Division of Hematology. For the first time, the Cushings felt some hope.
Find a cure
“Seeing patients with this kind of lymphoma is devastating,” says Shustov. “Most of them are young, and we’re not able to offer a cure.”
Still, he tried. Shustov removed Ben’s spleen and began treating him with heavy regimes of chemotherapy. Sadly, it didn’t work, and Ben’s health declined. Shustov still remembers what Ben said to him shortly before he died.
“He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself,” says Shustov. “And his last words to me were, ‘find a cure for this disease.’”
Force of personality
For Ben, these weren’t just words. While he was alive, he established a research fund to support Shustov’s research, even though he knew it wouldn’t benefit him. That was just who he was.
“Ben had an ability to talk to anyone and to see the best in people. He loved fully, from his heart,” says Alison Cushing. “That’s why he was open to a partnership with Dr. Shustov, and why so many people wanted to help him.”
So far, more than 200 people have given to Ben’s Cush It to the Limit Fund. One of the largest donations came from Carve for Cancer (C4C), a nonprofit started by another young man with a larger-than-life personality — Brent Evans.
Brent, an avid snowboarder, passed away from a rare blood cancer in 2012, but the nonprofit he started, C4C, continues to raise funds for research through an annual winter sports and music festival, as well as other action sports-based events throughout the year.
“Brent recognized that he had a massive community of amazing people behind him, and he was going to find a way to help others by leveraging his network and using his passion for snowboarding,” says Josh Frank, marketing director for C4C.
Shustov arranged for a meeting between C4C and Ben’s friends and family, and the connection was immediate.
“We were amazed and inspired by Ben Cushing, his family and his friends. We felt really lucky to meet them,” says Frank.
One step forward for research
Shustov’s research focuses on why rare blood cancers — the kinds that Ben and Brent had — arise. He has a hypothesis that they originate from genetic abnormalities caused by an unknown virus. With help from the Cushing fund, he’s starting to test tumor samples from patients with HSTCL.
If Shustov is able to identify the gene or infectious agent that causes this type of lymphoma, it will open up options for more effective treatments, bringing him one step closer to finding a cure.
“Thanks to the Cush It to the Limit Fund, we have the resources to accomplish the first step,” says Shustov. “My hope is that, by the third or fourth quarter of this year, we’ll have some answers and be able to launch a therapeutic trial with patients.”
For a reason
Scott and Alison are inspired by the many friends and supporters who joined forces when their son was alive and who continue to raise money today in search of a cure. “Maybe Ben was going through this for a reason,” says Alison.
It’s clear that Ben’s ability to inspire extended well beyond his friends and family, affecting people in the snowboarding community and people in the medical community, especially Dr. Shustov.
“Ben created a ripple effect,” says Shustov. “He’s a role model for how dedication and philanthropy can drive research forward and help other patients.”