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Life after St. Jude: Dakota’s Dreams

Made possible in part by the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project.

By Elizabeth Jane Walker

Patient Dakota and family

No more chemo: Dakota’s family members, Breken, Tricia and Steve, join him in celebrating his last day of therapy. *Photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dakota Cunningham was nearly 4 years old when scientists launched an initiative that would one day help save his life.

As the preschooler romped and played, scientists in the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project rolled up their sleeves and set to work. The project would eventually transform cancer diagnosis, treatment and research. It would also offer hope to the Cunningham family.

Seven years later, Dakota arrived at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). This disease occurs when genetic mutations prompt a buildup of the white blood cells called T cells. 

Dakota enrolled in the TOTAL 17 clinical trial, which incorporates discoveries from the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. Within the 3 billion base pairs of Dakota’s genome, the scientists found issues with five genes. These gene changes—a fusion, a gain, a frameshift, a deletion—had huge implications for treatment.

Based on his genetic makeup, Dakota received a drug called bortezomib to attack his cancer cells.

“The doctors were able to make adjustments to tailor treatment specifically to what Dakota needed, not just cookie-cutter treatment,” says his mom, Tricia Cunningham. “It saved my child. He’s cancer free today, and it’s 100% because of that.”

Tricia says she and her husband, Steve, are grateful to the thousands of St. Jude patients who donated tissue samples and enrolled in clinical trials through the years.

“Dakota’s treatment was developed as a result of all the research that was done in the past,” Tricia says. “We hope what they learn from him will help others down the road.”

In January of 2020, Dakota completed cancer therapy. Now 14, he has become an avid golfer and aspires to play for a Division I college.

“I don’t know why I got cancer, but if nothing else, it gave me golf,” he says.

Dakota also has a drive to help other patients facing cancer treatment.

“Let me tell you what I’ve been through,” he says. “I know it sucks; I know it’s hard. There are going to be days you think you can’t make it, but you will.

“I needed somebody to tell me that,” he continues. “Now I need to be able to say, ‘You’ve got this.’”


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