Cancer is something that has placed its insidious clutches on nearly every family in Australia. That includes this writer’s own father who, at the age of 79 passed away from oesophageal cancer. Losing a parent or other adult is terrible enough already, but how much worse, how much more unfair and unjust, it is when the cancer sufferer is a child.
Owen Finegan, CEO of the Kids’ Cancer Project and former Wallabies rugby player, spoke with iTWire about the turmoil he saw when a friend’s son Joseph was diagnosed with stage four blastoma. Finegan and his family supported his friend and saw other families similarly afflicted. It brought about a passion ever since to use his rugby profile to create awareness of childhood cancer, the leading cause of death by disease in children.
"Every day three kids are diagnosed," Finegan said. "Every week three families lose their child.”
The Kids’ Cancer Project is a national charity with 30 research projects totalling $50m across every state and funds scientists to improve the treatment and survival of these children. The charity came from humble beginnings, founded by retired tourist coach driver Col Reynolds. Reynolds encountered two bald children crossing the road as he drove past the former Camperdown Children’s Hospital and was moved to use what he had to help provide special quality of life moments for cancer-afflicted children. Over the next 12 to 13 years he took children for day trips on his bus and became involved in their lives, and attended 60 funerals as they inevitably passed on.
Wondering what more he could do, Reynolds was told by an Oncologist “if you really want to make a difference, invest in childhood cancer research” - advice the bus driver took seriously, founding the charity, and proving one person can make a difference. Reynolds has received recognition for his work and awarded the Order of Australia, OAM, medal.
Henry Yuen, the charity IT and Database manager, saw the good work global analytics firm SAS had achieved for another charitable organisation, the Black Dog Institute, which seeks to find treatments for depression and preventative measures for suicide.
Yuen approached SAS explaining the charity's challenges and how it wanted to provide as close as possible 100% of donations to research.
Every phone call has a different rate of success, Yuen explained, and all people have different needs. If the Project could find the people supporting its cause this would deliver increased funding results with reduced effort.
The Project did not have significant programming experience in-house, but Yuen says “SAS was keen to help us, this was very fortunate for us,” with SAS offering its software and skills to the charity at no cost under its Data For Good work.
The pathway with SAS was clear, Yuen said. "They've worked so long with analytics, they have the software and training and know what analysts want. They knew how to help us and the skills we needed.”
If SAS did not give to the Kids' Cancer Project, and if the charity had to pay for the software, “we couldn’t pay for it,” Yuen said. “We would use freeware or open source applications. We might have gone to Python or R, but with no programming knowledge it would take time.”
Even so, it wasn't an instant result with nine months of training and work before the charity saw results. The internal team went from not knowing SAS to being able to take data in, analyse it, bring data out into visualisations, extend the designs made by SAS experts, and other tasks.
The results have led to better retention of donors, and significant increases in fundraising amounts due to data-driven strategies. In one event the charity has previously raised $300,000 from activities teamed up with schools, but achieved $490,000 this year.
The analytics journey does not end here, with Yuen saying his team is looking towards employing artificial intelligence and real-time analytics in fundraising activities.
The Kids' Cancer Project is funding 30 research projects across 20 institutions this financial year, Finegan says. This research is performed by 36 scientists who have been scientifically reviewed and meet the criteria of the research advisory committee. The organisation also has an international panel containing experts across Australia and the United States.
As well as raising money for research, the charity's focus is raising awareness of childhood cancer and to improve the treatment of kid’s cancer, developing treatments that are less harmful, less toxic and have fewer side-effects.
"The difference between child and adult cancer is they need their own trials and own drugs. Some tumours have had no improvement over 40 years. We’re changing that paradigm and ensuring 80% chance of survival but we want that to be 100% survival,” Finegan said.