A fight for lives

Rice sophomore James Ragan determined to help children with cancer

Rice University sophomore James Ragan, who has battled cancer since the age of 13, has been named to the board of directors of the Sunshine Kids, a national organization founded in Houston that organizes group activities for children undergoing treatment for the disease.

Ragan knows the organization from both sides, as a recipient and as a benefactor.

James Ragan talks about his fight against cancer in a video produced by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

As a patient, he has undergone a series of operations and treatments over the past seven years with the hope of eradicating a rare form of bone cancer, osteosarcoma, that has metastasized to his lungs, liver and other organs.

While working hard enough to become salutatorian at his high school in Corpus Christi and to qualify for admission to Rice, Ragan also found the time and strength to establish Triumph Over Kid Cancer, which has raised $750,000 to research cures for what he considers “orphan” diseases, ones for which drug companies have little financial incentive to develop treatments.

His foundation also supports the Sunshine Kids. “I got involved with the Sunshine Kids in 2007,” he said. “I had been invited to go on a trip a couple of times in 2006, but that was right when I was diagnosed with cancer and I wasn’t well enough mentally and physically to travel.”

James Ragan

He joined them for three days in 2007 at the Houston Astros spring training camp in Florida and for a week in 2008 in Hawaii. “That was cool, because the kids had a week to bond, and the activities were really great,” he said.

Ragan served as a “spokeskid” for the Sunshine Kids in 2009. “And of course, I’ve definitely supported them through my fundraising efforts,” he said.

All of that led the organization to bring Ragan into its inner circle.

“If you’re going to listen to teenagers, James Ragan would be the first one you would want to listen to,” said G.W. Bailey, a Texas-born actor (“M*A*S*H,” “The Closer,” the “Police Academy” movies) and executive director since 2001 of The Sunshine Kids. “He’s a very insightful young man, and we listen to him anyway. So now we’ll do it officially.”

Bailey noted Ragan is the first active patient to join the board. A former patient, Akara Forsythe, now an anesthesiologist, chairs the board. “She is fantastic and has an amazing point of view, but it’s still an adult point of view, even with the experience she has as a Sunshine Kid,” he said. “So this will set a precedent for us. Once you break the barrier of giving one of the kids a voice in the decision-making process, it’s much easier for it to happen in the future.

“James is leading the way for other kids, as he has ever since he was diagnosed,” Bailey said. “This is just the sort of thing he could not be more perfect for.”

Ragan said the medical establishment tends to overlook adolescent teens suffering from cancer, so the organization, which works with hospitals in 45 states and Canada, is important to him. “To get the call to invite me to join their board was pretty special,” he said.

He expects to offer advice on the Kids’ fundraising efforts when the board meets this week in Las Vegas. One source of funds will be Triumph’s annual golf scramble and toga party in May in Corpus Christi. Ragan began these events years ago shortly after his initial diagnosis.

Ragan won’t attend his first board meeting in person as he’s busy with classes and said his illness prevents him from traveling. “But I’ll teleconference in,” he said.

Ragan describes his history in detail on the Triumph website, here. In short, he discovered his cancer while in Italy for a tennis tournament in 2006. He was initially diagnosed there after his knee swelled painfully and kept him from competing. He came home immediately and the diagnosis was confirmed two days later at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

With metal prostheses replacing the bone removed from his leg, the danger seemed to have passed, but the cancer had metastasized. Frequent surgeries and chemotherapy regimens have not kept him from pursuing academics and sports. Through with tennis, he turned to golf and earned a walk-on spot on the Rice golf team as a freshman.

A Houston Chronicle profile last August characterized Ragan as “relentlessly positive,” but he is matter-of-fact about his condition, which prompted the philosophy major to cut back on classes and leave the golf team this semester.

‘A great exercise is, when I wake up every morning, I ask myself: If this were the last day of my life, would I go do what I’m about to do today? And whenever the answer’s ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.’  

                      – James Ragan

“If having cancer has taught me anything, it’s that life is really precious. A great exercise is, when I wake up every morning, I ask myself: If this were the last day of my life, would I go do what I’m about to do today? And whenever the answer’s ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

He is investigating treatment with his doctor at MD Anderson for tumors that continue to invade his lungs and other organs. “We’re at the point where anything we try is going to be a Phase 1 trial,” he said. “For me, at this point, it’s really about getting to enjoy my day-to-day life. Something that would not infringe on that would likely be ideal, but we’ll see.”

He does feel he’s beaten the odds. “Yeah, I certainly like to think that at times,” Ragan said. “For osteosarcoma, the five-year survival rates are about 20 percent. I’ll celebrate seven years in June so, absolutely, I beat the odds. I see a lot of my friends who are still struggling with their prosthetics, and I’ve been blessed that everything’s gone great with mine.”

About 400 children and 500 adults a year are diagnosed with osteosarcoma in the United States. Research funded by Ragan’s organization to find its cause and develop treatments is progressing, “but I doubt they’ll be in Phase 1 for a while,” he said.

Despite long hospital stays, Ragan succeeded in following his sister Mecklin, a senior, to Rice. “Growing up, I was a big tennis player before having cancer, but school always came first,” he said. “We weren’t really allowed to do anything until we did our work; that’s the way things went in our household.”

He said cancer changed his perspective. “It encouraged me to work harder when I did get back to school. I had great teachers and a great support system at home and in Houston, through the schooling services at MD Anderson,” he said. “And it was also something to do. When you spend three weeks at a time in the hospital, you’ve got a lot of hours to pass.”

One of his favorite current teachers, Stephen Bradshaw, said Ragan is keeping his part of the bargain at Rice. “It’s amazing that, when you think about the distractions he must have, he is able to focus on something that in the grand scheme of things is as trivial as a nonmajor subject,” said Bradshaw, the William V. Vietti Junior Chair of Space Physics and an assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

“And yet, to put a great deal of effort into it and to be doing incredibly well is utterly humbling. It puts things into perspective when I think I’m swamped with work and there’s so much to do. But actually, I have nothing to complain about. All I am is busy.

“The sheer determination to lead a normal life in the face of everything speaks volumes for the guy, for how tough he is,” Bradshaw said.

Ragan said Rice’s proximity to the hospital has helped make things work. “Whether Mecklin came to Rice or not, I was looking at it anyway: One, because it’s a great school. And two, it was so close to M.D. Anderson, and for my situation, it fit quite nicely.

“It worked out well for me, and it’s been a good experience,” he said. “I really love all my friends at Duncan College, and to be a part of that is pretty special.”

“I imagine the admissions people saw this kid was going to fight all the way, and obviously he’s proven them more than right,” Bradshaw said. “Once in a while you meet someone here who just completely blows you away. James is without a doubt one of those people.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.