BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Nearly seven months after Zach Sobiech lost his battle with osteosarcoma, the Lakeland teenager continues to inspire millions around the world with his music and message.
And that interest has translated into money to fight the very disease that took Zach's life. At this point, $625,000 has been raised for the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund at Children's Cancer Research Fund, much of it through the downloads of Zach's hit song, "Clouds."
"We're really blessed by that because we can see Zach's spirit live on in incredible ways that none of us ever, ever expected," said Laura Sobiech, Zach's mother.
Laura and Rob Sobiech sat down with KARE 11 on the same day that 5,000 people gathered at the Mall of America to mark the one year anniversary of Zach's signature song. The group – including several school and gospel choirs – joined together in singing "Clouds."
"I don't think any of us predicted that this many people would respond in this way, so it's going to be powerful," Laura said.
No question, the Sobiechs have had a hard time predicting just where their path may lead since losing their son. They've alternated from grieving a beloved part of their family and celebrating Zach's honors.
"It's harder now than it was six months ago because six months ago, we let go of 'sick Zach.' Now, now we just really miss the Zach that we lived with and loved for 18 years," Laura said.
Amid that grief, the Sobiechs continue to watch the honors pour in. Zach will be featured in a CNN story, naming him one of the five most extraordinary people of 2013. His "Clouds" video has been watched by more than nine million people; a video of his last days has been viewed by nearly 12 million people; "Clouds" climbed to number 59 on the Billboard Top songs of 2013; and Laura Sobiech will be releasing a book about her son's life in May.
But most rewarding to the Sobiechs – is the money raised in Zach's name.
"It wasn't about Zach then, and it's not about Zach now. It's about the world and everyone else. And Zach always wanted to help other kids and wanted to help get rid of cancer," said Rob Sobiech.
That feeling of "fate" is shared by one of the primary researchers studying osteosarcoma at the University of Minnesota.
"Honestly, Zach could have been a patient anywhere. The fact he was a patient in Minnesota where we do have a critical mass of people who think about osteosarcoma, it feels like fate," said Dr. Logan Spector, a childhood cancer specialist in the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research at the U of M.
Spector co-leads a team of researchers who have received a grant through Zach's fund. They're now trying to answer the "how" and "why" of the rare bone cancer that claimed Zach's life.
"We're really concentrating on the genetics of osteosarcoma, both the genetics that kids inherit and the genetics that go awry in the cancer cell," Spector said.
One of their methods of research is comparing the DNA of humans who have osteosarcoma to that of dogs who also suffer from the disease.
"We are analyzing the human DNA and the dog DNA separately and then we're comparing to see if there are similarities," Spector said, adding that a dog's lifespan offers a compressed timeframe to view the results of the research and therapies.
Ultimately, the U of M researchers are hoping that an improved understanding of the genes associated with osteosarcoma will improve future treatments and earlier detection.
"If we can catch them earlier, we hope we can get better outcomes even without developing new therapies," Spector said.
But beyond the answers, the U of M researchers may find in the next two years, they're hoping the conclusions also help secure additional federal grants through the National Institutes of Health.
"The hope is that we would turn this into many multiples of the original grant," Spector said.
And with that possibility, experts say Zach's fund will make a real difference in fighting the childhood cancer.
"This will make a huge difference. It really allows them to pursue ideas that have been advanced by technology, for example," said John Hallberg with Children's Cancer Research Fund.
"For Zach and for the family, it was never about Zach. It was never about them. It was really about the cause. It was really about let's turn this tragedy of Zach's passing into helping other kids. And that's been at the very core of everything they've done," Hallberg said.
The Sobiechs couldn't agree more.
"That will be the great movie ending, won't it? That this whole thing meant something really big," Laura said.
Christmas Without Zach
And while they hold onto that belief, the Sobiechs also head into their first holiday season without the young man who brought "calm" and "peace" to their family. They're held up, they say, by friends, family and faith.
"Our faith tells us that he is safe and he is happy," Laura said. "There's peace there, knowing that we'll see him again, too. And that he's still around. We still feel him."
The "Cloud's choir version – performed at the Mall of America – is now available on iTunes for $.99. All proceeds – just like the original song – go to the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Research Fund at Children's Cancer Research Fund.