Children's Hospital clinic helps cancer survivors move on
Addalynne Morrison isn't shy in front of a camera. This 4-year-old girly girl can strike a pose like she's walking a Parisian runway in sparkly leggings and a bright printed tee. She loves to dress up, play with her Havanese puppy, Frankie, and watch “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Justin White, 33, handles accounting for Hollywood films. He lives in Lawrenceville with his wife, Nicole, 32, and son Damien, 18 months. He's preparing to become a parent for a second time as Nicole is due again in August.
These two people could not be more different. Yet they do have one thing in common — cancer. Addalynne is living with it now, and undergoing treatment for the tumors found in both her kidneys. White beat Stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma as a teen.
Now, White attends Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh's Survivorship Clinic, for screening and prevention of any late effects his treatment might produce. Addalynne will use the same service after she's deemed cancer-free.
According to the hospital, about one in 350 people in the United States develops cancer by the age of 20. Advances in treatment and supportive care have resulted in long-term survival rates of 80 percent, meaning many people in their 20s and beyond beat the disease as children.
Long-term effects of cancer treatment can include infertility, early heart failure, lung dysfunction and a lifelong risk of another cancer. Every patient's risk is different and depends on his or her treatment and other factors. About two-thirds of survivors develop a late side effect ranging from mild to severe. About 25 percent of survivors experience a serious late effect.
At the Survivorship Clinic, diagnostic testing can include everything from echocardiograms and chest X-rays to tests of bone density, hearing and pulmonary function. Patients receive a summary of results for their records.
Clinic director Dr. Jean Tersak says remaining vigilant about their health care is critically important for childhood cancer patients.
“Because they're under the age of 18, many of the decisions are being made by their parents. That's important information they may not recall when they're older,” she says.
Tests depend on each individual patient, the cancer they had and the treatment they received, Tersak says. Most visit once a year.
“It's important they keep it on their radar, even if they feel fine,” Tersak says.
Every few weeks, Addalynne, of Jefferson, Greene County, has to pause her normal life to receive chemotherapy at Children's. Diagnosed with kidney cancer in October, she's in the middle of nine months of treatment that involve three-to-five-day stints of treatment every 16 or 18 days. She's already had one round of chemo and two surgeries.
While right now, her parents, Erik and Brittany Morrison, are focused on getting her the immediate care she needs, they say it's comforting to know the clinic is there as a future resource.
“She'll always get an early jump on everything,” says Brittany Morrison, 30. “They test everything, even things not related to cancer.”
White was 14 when a persistent cough turned out to be something more serious during his freshman year at Central Catholic High School. A biopsy of a bump on his throat showed he had Stage 2 Hodgkins lymphoma. Months of chemotherapy and radiation followed.
The treatments caused White to miss many Mondays of school and left portions of his hair patchy around his neckline, which he admits made him slightly self-conscious during morning bus rides with girls from other schools. But he doesn't remember thinking much about his own mortality.
“I don't think I even understood the scope of what I had or the severity of it,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is scary.' I just wanted it to be over.”
He finished treatment and has never had a recurrence. He's stayed vigilant about monitoring his health, and last year, his doctor suggested the Survivorship Clinic. Through it, he visits the hospital once a year for a full work-up of tests.
“It's a huge peace of mind,” White says. “It's like getting a clean slate, back to square one. If something is going on, they catch it.”
So far, tests have only shown a slight Vitamin D deficiency, which White rectifies with a daily pill. While White says he feels like cancer is more of a “distant memory” than potential future danger, he knows he's never completely in the clear.
“Nothing is 100 percent certain,” he says. “You're always aware. There is never a moment you take for granted.”
That mentality applied particularly to parenthood for White. Doctors had told him there was a possibility the cancer treatments could have made fathering a child complicated. But the couple had no problems, and now, cute and curious Damien has a baby sister on the way.
By staying on top of his health and focusing on his future, White has made cancer simply a thing of his past.
“It's part of my history,” White says. “It doesn't define me.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.