Diagnosed with Cancer on Her 5th Birthday, 9-Year-Old Erica Is Now Going Strong
If anyone asks her about the scar on her leg, she simply answers, "I had cancer."
Erica, an active and high-spirited third grader, refers to her experience with cancer as casually as another child might talk about a sprained ankle. At the age of 5, she was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer. "She's 9 now," says her mother, Robyn, "and she is more concerned about her orthodontist appointments and braces than she ever seemed to be about chemotherapy."
A Diagnosis of Cancer
In the spring of 2000, Erica was overcome by leg pain so severe that her concerned parents rushed her to the emergency room, where doctors found a suspicious growth. It was on her 5th birthday that Erica got a surprise that no parent would ever wish for his or her child: a diagnosis of cancer.
Robyn was already familiar with the outstanding attention children receive from the staff at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital. Her niece had been treated there for a blood disorder, and Robyn witnessed this level of care firsthand as she accompanied her sister-in-law. With Erica and her family now facing a diagnosis of cancer, the decision to place her in the care of Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital was simple.
Normalcy in the Face of Cancer
"In the beginning, it was devastating," says Robyn. "At first, we told Erica that she had a boo-boo on her leg and the doctors were going to fix it. However, when we found out how serious it was, we were very honest with her." Erica's parents told her she had cancer and explained what that meant in terms that a 5-year-old could understand. "She was so good about it," says Robyn. "I look at her now and can't believe what she went through."
One of the keys to helping Erica through this two-year battle was to make her life as normal as possible. "The staff at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital told us it's all in the attitude of the parents, so my husband, Ray, and I made a pact to treat her normally every step of the way," says Robyn.
While Erica remembers what it was like to go through chemotherapy, she is quicker to recall the special food the nurses would bring her and the hospital's playroom, where she made fuse-bead crafts and played in the toy kitchen. "The staff at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital was like family, and Erica was a part of it all," says Robyn. "I was so amazed when one member of the staff gave Erica a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio. We asked all of the doctors and nurses to sign it, too." And when things seemed more than Erica could handle, the child life specialists or Lotsy Dotsy, the resident clown, were always on hand to cheer her up.
Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital provides the most comprehensive pediatric hematology and oncology program in the region. Erica and other pediatric cancer patients receive medical care from a dedicated team of pediatric oncologists, nurses and specialty support staff.
Erica received one year of chemotherapy under the care of Iftikhar Hanif, MD, pediatric oncologist on the medical staff at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, Memorial Regional Hospital and Memorial Hospital West. This was followed by highly specialized surgery performed by Michael Jofe, MD, pediatric orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, Memorial Hospital West and Memorial Hospital Pembroke. The procedure, called tibial autographed vascularized fibula surgery, fused a cadaver tibia (shinbone) to Erica's fibula (calf bone). "We removed the cancerous tumor, and also had to remove Erica's tibia," says Dr. Jofe, "but we left the growth plate. Then we put Erica's fibula inside the cadaver tibia, like a hotdog inside a bun, to keep the blood supply intact." This meant that Erica would not lose her leg; in fact, it continues to grow at a normal rate.
Erica's cancer has been in remission for nearly three years, and she is evaluated every few months to monitor her health. For a while after she went into remission, however, every cough would send her mom to the doctor. "We need to treat her like a normal kid, though," says Robyn. "It was all about Erica for a while, but now everything has fallen into place and things are pretty routine."
In addition, Dr. Jofe recently lifted most of the previous physical restrictions placed on Erica. While Erica is advised to forego participation in organized sports, she is free to do anything else she wants. These days, that often means riding her bike, playing on the monkey bars and getting together with her girlfriends.
While she is not shy to tell people she had cancer, Erica says that sometimes she chooses to ignore the questions. But she does have advice for kids likeherself who are facing cancer. "I would tell other kids not to be scared. You'll lose your hair, but you can get a wig," says Erica. "You should go to Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital because you will have fun, and they'll help you not to be scared. And they have toys."