It's Christmas, the time of the year when we want to believe in miracles, hope for the impossible, and expect the unexpected. It may be even more significant for cancer patients and their families. Cancer diagnosis is always a shock -- and hope can be very uncertain, but sometimes dreams do come true. Here is one story that brought us joy this holiday season.
One of our programs is to support children with cancer who had to travel abroad to access treatment. David, a 6-year-old with highly aggressive and rare cancer, came to Houston from Surgut, a city in Siberia that is known as unofficial "oil capital of Russia". It's a city where people live and work in brutal conditions (a record low is -67F), but hope to save enough money to eventually move to, literally, greener pastures. David was born to a young family of ethnic Moldovans that came there from Moscow, where stable jobs were scarce and cost of living was high.
In spring of 2012 David, who has always been happy and active, began feeling unwell. He started having coughing fits and suddenly lacked energy. His mom took him to a pediatrician, who in turn referred them to a cardiologist, an ophthalmologist, a dermatologist, an ENT doctor, and a number of other specialists. David saw a nephrologist when he began having stomachaches and difficulties with making it to the bathroom in time, then a pulmonologist -- when his cough became so strong that it would make him vomit, and then a neurologist -- after becoming unable to get a good night's sleep. He had cardiograms, urine tests, and ultrasounds that did not show anything of concern. The pediatrician insisted David was well, but pretended to be sick to skip daycare. He was given massages, told to avoid any exertion and take vitamin B, but new symptoms continued to appear.
The endless waiting to see the doctors, do procedures or tests, stretched for many months. Until a day near Christmas last year when David was so sick that his mother had to hold him in her arms as he was too weak to walk. That day she refused to leave the doctor's office without a clear answer as to what was wrong with him. So she got another referral -- to see a surgeon, who took one look at David and called for urgent operation the same afternoon suspecting appendicitis. Instead, a massive tumor filling David's abdomen was discovered. His parents were told that he cheated death by days.
David began treatment in a regional Children's hospital that had only three pediatric oncologists on staff to cover population of 1.5 million. He had initial response, but due to extent of the disease, his prognosis was poor. With a rare disease like David's, it is very important to be treated in a hospital with experience with similar cases. But Russia has no centers specializing in pediatric sarcomas.
Having lost faith in Russian healthcare system, fearing more delays and errors, and upon learning that a new procedure for this type of cancer was available only in the US, David's family raised money for the initial deposit and came to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The treatment was very difficult, with extensive surgery, infusion of chemotherapy and "bathing" David's abdomen in it to destroy all remaining traces of cancer, followed by radiation. Side effects had developed and will have to be watched carefully until they go away. But now David's family can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Recent tests showed David has no cancer left in his body. If all goes well, they hope to go back home in a couple of months.
A year passed since David's initial cancer diagnosis, and for his family it meant a turn from despair to a new hope. We are happy to have played a small part in their victory. Our best wishes to all cancer patients everywhere.