Grammy-nominated musician, record producer, and Chapel Hill native Porter Robinson first met pediatric oncologist Dr. Kate Westmoreland in November 2016, when Porter’s younger brother Mark came into Dr. Westmoreland’s care at UNC Hospitals. Three years later, they have raised more than $154,700 to support the treatment of pediatric cancer in Malawi.
Porter was touring in Philadelphia when he received a call that would change his life forever. Mark was in the hospital with an abdominal mass that was doubling in size every 24 hours. The cause of the mass was a rare and aggressive form of cancer called Burkitt lymphoma.
“Mark’s chemotherapy treatment at UNC was intensive and sometimes lasted for five straight days,” said Nick Robinson, Porter and Mark’s father. “We spent long hours in the UNC hospital room with Mark and while we did, we got to know Dr. Kate. As we inquired about her life, she revealed her passion for caring for the children in Malawi who suffer from the exact same cancer that Mark had. She told us about UNC Project-Malawi and about the country’s lower survival rates. It was hard to escape how blessed we were to have Mark receiving the best possible care.”
UNC pediatric oncologists Dr. Westmoreland and Dr. John Hipps treated Mark, and he began his road to recovery.
Mark’s recovery is typical for Americans diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma. Through intensive treatment with chemotherapy, this cancer has as five-year survival rate of 90 percent in the United States. This is not the case for children living in the developing world, where the cancer can be a death sentence.
“While Mark was undergoing treatment, it was hard to watch him suffer. He got down to only 108 pounds and had many side effects,” said Nancy Robinson, Porter and Mark’s mother. “Yet at UNC, he had the best care: a private hospital room, attentive nurses, anti-nausea medicine, antibiotics, nutritional support, specialists, and transportation to an emergency room when he was critically ill. I could not imagine any child having to fight this cancer without all of the resources that Mark had. In Malawi, there are multiple children in a bed sharing one oxygen tank. Children are malnourished with complicating illnesses, and do not have access to transportation to the hospital. The thought of it was haunting. Our family was eager to do something to support Kate and her work with the children in Malawi.”
Porter describes Mark’s battle with Burkitt lymphoma as “utterly devastating and one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been through and surely a million times worse for Mark.” Through their family’s collective desire to help others avoid the same suffering, the Robinsons approached Dr. Westmoreland about her work to treat Burkitt lymphoma in Malawi, where prevalence of the cancer is much higher and the survival rate can be as low as 29 percent. Together, they established the Robinson Malawi Fund so families “won’t needlessly lose loved ones.”
“The experience of having a family member with Burkitt lymphoma was really devastating and quite scary, and that was even with the assurance of a 90 percent survival rate,” Porter said. “Knowing that it’s so much more common in Malawi, so much less survivable, and so much more affordable to treat, it presents an opportunity to do a lot of good. And it felt like fate in a way – the story I kept telling myself was that Mark’s outcome was so good in part because of how much experience Dr. Westmoreland had in Malawi treating this exact disease.”
The fund launched in conjunction with Porter’s Second Sky Festival, a two-day, artist-curated music festival in Oakland, California. Leading up to the festival, Porter announced to his 648,000 Twitter followers: “Second Sky is going to have a booth (with Mark’s doctor there!) to share information and accept donations for this cause — we have a goal to raise $50,000 (or hopefully higher) and I’m going to match everyone’s donations at the festival!”
The Robinsons more than tripled their goal, and Porter matched every dollar that his fans gave.
The Second Sky Festival was truly a family affair, with Porter’s two brothers contributing their talents as well. Mark contributed to the Second Sky merchandise designs and Robert, their younger brother, designed the newly created Robinson Malawi Fund logo. Their parents, Nick and Nancy Robinson, spent countless hours organizing, planning, and supporting their family’s collective mission to save lives.
Dr. Westmoreland, who leads the pediatric cancer program at UNC Project-Malawi, was also present to raise awareness and financial support that will increase survival rates for children in Malawi diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma. She had nothing but great things to say about the experience and the fans at Second Sky.
“The Second Sky Festival was absolutely spectacular. All of the artists were incredibly talented and created a truly unique and amazing music and visual experience, unlike anything I have ever seen before. Most of all, I enjoyed my interactions with the fans at the booth. I have never received so much respect, love, and gratitude in my entire life. I was deeply touched by so many fans who told me such personal stories and explained what compelled them to donate to the Robinson Malawi Fund. I am endlessly grateful and overwhelmed by all of the donations we have received! It is so wonderful to see so many people come together for a cause that means so much to me.”
Dr. Westmoreland and the Robinson family believe that these children deserve the same shot at life as Mark was given. And, because of Porter’s generosity and willingness to spread the word about the treatable cancer, more children will have this shot at life.
“For Mark and me as brothers, I think we just quietly recognize that this is the right thing to do, and a place where we can help. We’ve both had experiences with Burkitt lymphoma – Mark as a survivor, and me and as family member – and we both know firsthand how much pain can be wrought by this. Just knowing that you can do a full end-to-end treatment for $4,000 and that you could save the life of somebody who went through what Mark did, it just felt like a duty to help. To anyone who donated, thank you so, so, so much! Your kindness is really meaningful to me specifically, and it’ll go a long way in directly saving lives.”
Nick Robinson expressed his family’s gratitude saying, “Every dollar contributed feels like a gift to our family because it gives another family like ours, half a world away, a chance at having their child or sibling survive cancer.”