I talked to the man behind an organization called Team Jack last week, wondering if he could help me answer a question.
Andy Hoffman was in his law office in Atkinson, doing what he does more than anything anymore, thinking about pediatric brain cancer, trying to raise awareness about pediatric brain cancer, trying to raise money for pediatric brain cancer research.
He was so nice, so helpful.
“I'm so glad you're writing this. You don't even have to say the word ‘Jack’ in it.”
You probably know who Jack is. You've probably grinned through your tears at the video of the wonder boy from out west, making it look easy at the Big Red spring game.
And you probably know, too, that nothing is easy for No. 22, a first-grader with a brain tumor befriended by Rex Burkhead, his Husker teammates and coaches, and eventually, fans everywhere.
If you have a heart, the kid touched it.
And Jack's dad will touch you, too.
He's a general practice attorney in the wide-open spaces of Holt County, a husband and father of three.
He's more of an expert on cancer than he wants to be, but before his oldest child was diagnosed two years ago, he'd never thought much about the question I asked him Wednesday.
The question my daughter posed after we watched Jack's 69-yard touchdown run two weeks ago.
Why do kids get cancer?
It's a question for theologians and researchers and more than 13,500 parents per year in the United States.
“It's a mystery,” Andy Hoffman says. “And until your son or daughter is affected by it, you don't pay any attention to it.”
“It's the million-dollar question,” says Stefanie Lowas, a pediatric oncologist and assistant professor of pediatric hematology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“We don't know why kids get cancer.”
“I tell parents: 'We really don't know, but we're working on it,’” said Stuart Siegel, director of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.
“The important thing to let them know is: ‘We're working on this.’”
More work, that's what Andy Hoffman wants. More work, more attention, more research, new drugs, more effective treatment.
* Every day, 36 children are diagnosed with cancer.
* Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children 1 to 14.
* One in five children with cancer does not survive.
* The average age of diagnosis is 6.
* The incidence of children's cancer has increased more than 20 percent in the past 36 years (although the death rate has dropped dramatically).
* The majority of childhood cancers are blood cancers (like leukemia) and cancers of the brain and central nervous system.
And even though doctors don't know why kids get cancer, they know why they don’t get cancer.
For the most part, they don't get it from the environment -- exposure to chemicals or polluted water or too much sun or smoking, like adults do.
And they don't get it from normal tissue that goes haywire, like adults do.
“It's something that goes wrong in the development of the tissue,” Siegel said. “Wrong either in utero or shortly after.”
They call them “developmental cancers” or “embryonal cancers,” Lowas said.
“Kids' cells are growing and one cell decides to grow too much.”
It's not as simple as it sounds, she warned.
And the truth is this: “For many adult cancers, we don't know the cause, either.”
But since adult cancer is more prevalent -- one child will get cancer for every 100 adults diagnosed -- less money is available for research into pediatric cancer.
Only one new drug for childhood cancer has been licensed in the past 30 years.
But there is excitement. Emerging therapies and new precision drugs that target the gene mutation inside the cancer cells.
“It's a very complex puzzle, but at least we're starting to unwind it a little bit,” Siegel said.
Team Jack is working on unwinding it a little more.
A dad is working on that.
So far, they have helped raise more than $300,000 for CureSearch, an organization devoted to funding and supporting innovative childhood cancer research and education.
Everyone knows Jack's name. But there are other names, other foundations, other kids, the father says.
The kids who make it.
The kids who don't.
“Seven today, seven tomorrow, seven Saturday ...”
Why do kids get cancer?
When Jack was diagnosed, his parents thought about that question medically.
And they thought about the bigger why. The why, why, why?
“The first six months, that question serves as a noose around your neck,” Andy Hoffman says. “You get shackled to it.
“And then we came up with a new attitude, the idea, ‘You can get busy living or you can get busy dying.’ So we got busy living.”
It's not about them, he says again.
It's about kids and cancer.
Kids with brain cancer.
“Not only is it the leading cancer cause of death in children, but it has some of the worst long-term implications. ... It is a horrific disease.”
A disease they can't run away from.