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High Stakes

Last April, third-year College student Abigail Burroughs said she had one wish. After battling squamous cell head and neck cancer for more than a year, she desperately wanted to be able to keep the apartment lease she had signed with two of her friends for the University's 2001-2002 school year.

But on June 9, after a long and frustrating fight not only with cancer but with pharmaceutical companies that refused to provide her with experimental or compassionate use treatments, Burroughs succumbed to the disease.

"She lived right up until the minute she died," said Abigail's mother Kathleen Dunn of her daughter's relentless optimism and strength.

Tonight starting at 9 p.m., Burroughs and her battle for life will be remembered at a Casino Night fund-raising event held by Theta Delta Chi fraternity and Pi Beta Phi sorority at Fiji. The proceeds from the event will go toward the Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs, Inc., a non-profit organization started by her father, Frank Burroughs.

Fighting until the end

For months Abigail Burroughs, her family and friends challenged two pharmaceutical companies, AstraZeneca and Imclone, to provide her with potentially helpful experimental drugs, Iressa and C-225. Burroughs' cancer did not fall within the companies' testing criteria and they did not offer the treatments for compassionate use, a procedure that must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Last spring petitions to the two companies were circulated around University classrooms by Burroughs, her friends, the Third Year Class Council, the Inter-Fraternity Council and the Office of the Dean of Students.

As the semester drew to a close, Burroughs looked forward to a Caribbean cruise with three of her friends. But after only three days on the cruise, Burroughs became ill and had to be flown home from Puerto Rico.

At the end of May, the situation started to look hopeful as Burroughs was accepted into a cancer treatment trial in San Antonio. But she never made it to Texas. The week before she died, Burroughs stayed on a feeding tube to try to regain enough strength to make the trip. When her health did not improve, Dunn said Burroughs accepted that she was not going to get her strength back in enough time.

"She did not get anxious about it," Dunn said of her daughter's final days. "She was very good about listening to her body and had a very strong faith in God."

"She was so determined not to lose her will," said fourth-year College student Stephanie Osborn, Burroughs' first-year suite-mate. "She was always trying to hang on."

Anne Agnew, a senior at James Madison University who was a friend and neighbor of Burroughs in Falls Church, Va., recalled spending time with her in the weeks before she died. On June 9, Agnew heard that Burroughs had requested a copy of the movie "Tuesdays With Morrie" about a man dying of a terminal illness.

"Renting that video was not like her," Agnew said. "I had wanted to get her the book, but she never wanted to read it because it was so much to deal with. When I heard that, I knew she was ready to die."

The widespread public efforts that were made on Burroughs' behalf in the final months of her life brought crowds of people to her memorial service held in Arlington, Va., at the end of July. The service was followed not by a somber reception, but by a celebration, something Burroughs herself had requested.

"Abigail was such an example while she was going through all of that," Dunn said. "She kept up with everybody and was glad to be with everyone."

Dunn, who moved to Charlottesville to care for Burroughs, has started writing a book about their family's experience, which she hopes will be helpful for other people.

For the other Abigails

By midsummer, Burroughs' parents, who are divorced but both live in Northern Virginia, already had started fighting back in the memory of their beloved daughter.

After months of petitioning, contacting government officials and garnering media coverage, Frank Burroughs saw no reason to stop his efforts.

"The night that she died, I had an epiphany, to borrow an Abigail word," he said. "I thought, why should I stop now?"

During her illness, Burroughs and her father had talked about starting an organization devoted to helping cancer patients.

"She would want me to keep going to help the other Abigails," he said.

In late June, U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) invited Frank Burroughs to testify in Washington before his Congressional Committee on Government Reform and Oversight on the issue of experimental treatments and compassionate drug administration.

The hearings received national coverage, and as Burroughs' case became more widely known, her father quickly developed contacts with lawmakers, lobbyists, national cancer awareness advocates and the Food and Drug Administration.

As support increased, Frank Burroughs took time off from his job as an engineering consultant and started the organization he and his daughter had long discussed.

Burroughs explained that the goals of the Abigail Alliance are, "to find ways to have pharmaceutical companies provide wide use of developmental drugs, and to help smaller pharmaceutical companies develop these drugs faster."

Smaller companies tend to be undercapitalized and therefore cannot get potentially effective cancer drugs manufactured to help people in need, Burroughs said.

Because of the Abigail Alliance's efforts, the National Cancer Institute now posts not only its own medical trials but those being sponsored by various drug companies on the NCI Web site to heighten awareness for other cancer victims.

Burroughs said further success is on the horizon.

"We are negotiating with a particular pharmaceutical company and are very close to getting them to agree to do compassionate use," he said.

Placing high stakes on life

In October, the Theta Delta Chi fraternity expressed an interest in using the Abigail Alliance as a fall philanthropy project. The group had a special interest in the cause because a Theta Delta Chi member, George Cauble, a 2001 College graduate, dated Burroughs during her time at the University.

Pat English, a third-year College student and Theta Delta Chi's philanthropy chairman, recalled a presentation Burroughs had made to the house during the petitioning efforts last spring.

"It hit us really hard," English said. "It seemed so easy - just give her the drugs. But it really wasn't that easy."

Third-year College student Julianne Mulhollan, who is in charge of Pi Beta Phi's philanthropy efforts, watched a video compilation of the news coverage of Burroughs' experience early in the semester.

Mulhollan said she and the other members were "amazed that a girl whose life could have been saved from this drug did not get it. This is an area of cancer awareness [compassionate or experimental treatment] that very few people seem to know about."

Pi Beta Phi decided to join Theta Delta Chi in the effort to raise money for the Abigail Alliance. Before the event tonight, Frank Burroughs will present plaques to honor both Greek houses as the founding contributors to the organization.

For the Casino Night fund-raiser, English and Mulhollan have planned games of poker, black jack, craps and roulette. Fake money will be traded in for vouchers that people can use toward an auction that will be held after midnight. Participants can bid for almost anything, including overnight trips, University men's basketball tickets, sideline passes for Saturday's Penn State football game, DVD players and gift certificates.

Tickets have been on sale on the Lawn all week for $10, and English said the groups hope to raise between $4,000 and $5,000 for the Abigail Alliance.

"I would really love to make this a longstanding tradition," English said.

Moving ahead with memories

The ongoing efforts by Burroughs' family, friends and supporters of the Abigail Alliance seem to ensure that her cause will not be forgotten.

But Burroughs herself, a petite brunette who was an active member of the University community, remains in the hearts and minds of her family, friends and classmates.

"We miss her a whole lot," Dunn said. "We're all just trying to put one foot in front of the other and not have to carry a box of tissues around. This is tough stuff to deal with."

Osborn, who was supposed to share a Wertland Street apartment with Burroughs this year, still decorates her bedroom walls with pictures of Burroughs during her healthier days.

"On Thursday or Friday nights, especially, I find myself really missing her," Osborn said. "I'm glad it's my last year [of school] because it's hard to be here without her."

The loss of Burroughs is profound for her family and the University community, but her experience has brought a little-known area of experimental and compassionate use treatment to light.

"You just have to move on and try to see if you can pull out any good for other people," Dunn said.

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