Our patients' stories: Taking on cancer with a smile

Ariana was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at just 2 months old. Allison O’Neill, MD has been with the family every step of the way.

When Sara Cepeda’s daughter Ariana was just two months old, she made a terrifying discovery while changing the small girl’s diaper. As Sara looked down at her baby on the changing table, she was horrified to see that Ariana’s entire midsection was covered in bruises. At first Sara wondered if her daughter could some how have been hurt by a stranger without her knowing, but a trip to the local emergency room revealed that her daughter’s bruising was caused by a medical condition. Based on what they saw in a physical exam, the ER doctors suspected Ariana was suffering from either a virus or acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and made arraignments for the small girl to be transferred to Dana-Farber/ Children’s Hospital Cancer Center right away.

“I was a nervous wreck,” Sara says, remembering the long drive from Methuen to Boston. “Naturally I was hoping for the virus, but at that point all I could do was hope. I felt very helpless.”

The following day Sara got Ariana’s test results. Her daughter had leukemia and it was progressing rapidly, crowding out her normal bone marrow and hindering her body’s production of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, all of which lead to the bruising in her stomach. Within hours Sara was discussing her daughter’s care with Allison O’Neill, MD, Chief Hematology and Oncology Fellow at Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center.

Dr. O’ Neill immediately started Ariana on a few different therapies to treat her ALL. Because Ariana was so small, the treatments were difficult on her at first, but it didn’t take long before her bubbly personality persevered. In a few weeks she was smiling again, even when therapy occasionally made her nauseous and caused her beautiful black hair to thin and fall out.

“It was hard on Ariana at first, but she wouldn’t let anything keep her down for long,” Sara remembers. “After a few weeks she was all smiles again. Aside from the hospital bed and lack of hair, you’d almost never even know she was sick.”

Ariana kept on smiling, right through the next two-and-a- half years of therapy, (including an eight month stay at the Cancer Center as an inpatient). Being away from home during such a stressful time was difficult on the family, but Sara says the care they received at Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center made her homesickness bearable. While living at the hospital, Sara and Ariana formed an especially tight bond with the nurses on their floor, many of them even offering to sit with Ariana at points throughout the day so Sara could sneak off for a quick shower or simply steal a few moments for herself.

“The nurse made us feel so at home while we were there,” she says. “Obviously it wasn’t an ideal situation, but they made it as comfortable as possible. The entire time we felt so supported that it made Ariana’s cancer seem less overwhelming.”

Ariana’s cancer is now in remission and she’s all smiles
Now, thanks to her treatment, Ariana’s ALL is in full remission. She’s full of life and says her daughter’s beaming smile is never far from her lips. She currently sees Dr. O’Neill once a month for examinations and blood work, and will see her less and less as she gets further out from therapy.

But even when her family’s time at Children’s and Dana-Farber is just a distant memory, Sara says she’ll always remember everything Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center staff did for her daughter.

“From our first trip to the emergency room to now, everyone at Children’s and Dana-Farber has been great. One of the things I appreciate most is how they let you know what’s happening with your child’s treatment. They really make you a part of the decision making,” she says. “It’s empowering. I wouldn’t want my baby to go to any other hospital in the world.”

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