Young artists fund pediatric cancer treatment breakthroughs with Chords2Cure

Story Joe Piasecki | Photos by Ted Soqui

Pediatric cancer survivor Mafalda von Alvensleben, Chords2Cure co-founder Juliette Pegula, and pediatric cancer survivor Jaxon Blumenthal thank the Crossroads community for their support

Jaxon Blumenthal was only 11 years old when the diagnosis rocked his family’s world: stage 4 liver cancer. The painful trials that followed included six months of punishing chemotherapy, a liver transplant, stints of acute organ rejection, and multiple surgeries to remove lung tissue after the cancer spread.

Students at Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences are using their musical talent to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer treatment research. Chords2Cure participants include (back row, from left) Miles Hoegl, Joby Levit, Dani Lubezki, Eden Ellenberg, Coco Arquette and (front row, from left) Charlotte Furie, Zachary Zwelling and Jaxon Blumenthal. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Now a junior at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, Jaxon sang his heart out on March 10 at The Broad Stage, surrounded by family and friends, his cancer in remission.

The joyful occasion was the fifth annual Chords2Cure Benefit Concert, a youth-led philanthropic rock show to raise awareness and funding for the treatment of pediatric cancer.

American Authors lead singer Zac Barnett and Jaxon Blumenthal sing “Best Day of My Life” — the song that brought Jaxon’s mom to tears on the day he finally left the hospital

Chords2Cure started when Jaxon’s BFF Juliette Pegula and other classmates rallied around Jaxon and fellow student Mafalda von Alvensleben, who was diagnosed that same year with Ewing Sarcoma, among the rarest of pediatric cancers and the toughest to treat. After nine months of chemo and seven surgeries, Mafalda, who read poetry about her treatment during the concert, is in remission and a student at Yale University.

As an observer entirely new to the event, a few things stood out right away.

First, these Crossroads kids have serious talent — professional quality singing and musicianship all the way around.

Second, they’ve tapped into the significant resources of Crossroads parents and support from the entertainment industry. Filmmaker Judd Apatow and actress Leslie Mann opened the concert with a few laughs while auctioning off an acoustic guitar signed by Katy Perry. Danny Trejo brought coffee and donuts, and praised the young performers on stage. David Arquette sat in the front row, watching daughter Coco Arquette sing during multiple performances, including a rendition of “Chasing Cars” with Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody, Jaxon and other student musicians. Helen Hunt introduced a song performed by Jaxon, three schoolmates and Drew Brown from One Republic.

Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow present a Katy Perry-signed guitar that auctioned on the spot for $1,400

Third, they’ve raised a lot of money. This year’s benefit concert raised $160,000, pushing their five-year total above the $500,000 mark.

Chords2Cure proceeds have already made a difference in other kids’ lives by funding clinical trials by UCLA Medical Center pediatric oncologist Dr. Noah Federman — who treated Jaxon and Mafalda — that facilitated FDA approval of a new drug for treating pediatric cancer. It’s the first new pediatric cancer therapy to come online in decades.

“There’s not a lot of awareness for these types of cancers. Altogether there are about 13,000 pediatric cancers per year in the whole United States. Breast cancer is about 250,000 cases, lung cancer half a million or so,” said Federman. “But cancer is a major killer of children. It’s one of the most common causes of childhood mortality after accidental death, trauma, etc. It’s a public health menace, if you think of it that way. And the funding just really has not been there as it has for other cancers, and that’s really how this all started — the Blumenthals and a bunch of other families who were really driven to make a difference.”

“The things we do to cure cancer are quite medieval,” continued Federman about chemotherapy and other painful treatment options. “But we’re just on the cusp, really, of using targeted therapies and making some of that old stuff obsolete. … But to be able to get a research program off the ground takes a lot of infrastructure and a lot of cost. And that’s where the Chords2Cure funding came in. They helped me set up a clinical research structure so that I can really participate and move these clinical trials forward on a national level.”

Danny Trejo and David Arquette hung out at The Broad Stage before the concert

Student singer Charlotte Furie tackled Radiohead’s “Creep”

And the remarkable thing is that Chords2Cure really did start with the kids and remains driven by student leadership, their parents say.

Crossroads student Dani Lubezki sang “I’ll Take Manhattan”

“It first came to my attention when my son asked me if he could be in a concert,” said actress Camryn Manheim of her teenage son Milo. “As I learned more my heart just exploded, because it was a community of young people coming together for other young people. … And it’s no joke — there’s rehearsals and fundraising and outreach. You don’t just come to do it for fun. You come to make a difference.”

Trejo, 74, spoke on stage about his own struggles to beat cancer in his 60s — how at first he was angry about his diagnosis, but gradually became thankful he was spared the disease when he was younger, which prompted him to volunteer at pediatric hospitals during his own treatment.

Crossroads student singer Lilac Emery-Hanes and student emcee Milo Manheim

“My doctor said, ‘Danny, I think one of the things helping you is your attitude: an attitude of gratitude. All these youngsters today, they have that attitude. Chords-2Cure. Cure. Chords: music, singing, dancing. That’s what we do,” Trejo said.

Mafalda said Chords2Cure was part of her emotional recovery process.

“It’s been amazing, because it gives you an outlet to talk about your story. To be able to connect with people and see people rally around something that’s so close to you, there’s something very healing about that. It’s meant a lot,” she said.

“I’ve spent my fair share of time in the hospital. I know how unpleasant it all is,” added Jaxon. “Even if it’s just one person, to make it as easy as possible for them would mean the world to me. Hopefully we can extend that reach to a lot more children in a lot more places.”

“This comes from a place of love,” added student singer Eden Ellenberg, “because it’s so real to the founders and all the people around them.”

Perhaps the moment that was most apparent was when Jaxon’s mom Chrissy Blumenthal introduced a performance of the American Authors song “Best Day of My Life” by her son, six classmates and American Authors lead singer and guitarist Zac Barnett.

Chords2Cure co-chair Meredith Pegula, student Ana Kahan, Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody and student Coco Arquette perform “Chasing Cars”

When Jaxon got his life-saving liver transplant, she said, “after 11 days in the hospital they finally told us he could go home, so I went to decorate the house and get it ready. On the way back to the hospital, I was driving down Wilshire Boulevard and the song ‘Best Day of My Life’ came on the radio. And I started bawling, because it really was the best day of my life. I was so grateful that Jaxon was given a second chance at life.”