Teaming Up to Beat Cancer
“Mommy, that’s me!” 5-year-old Kash Saldana told his father David and mother Esther when they took him to see how he was a local celebrity. Kash, with his bright smile and sharp haircut, was featured on several large Valley Children’s Healthcare roadside billboards throughout the Valley. The signs display the cute boy being licked by a puppy, with the words: “Kash. Cancer-Free.”
Kash’s billboards were part of Valley Children’s ad campaign to tell the story of how the Saldanas and Valley Children’s teamed up to beat cancer.
Esther tells his story:
“We knew something was wrong,” she says. “He stopped wanting to eat. His legs were giving out from under him.” The young couple took Kash to one pediatrician after another, not settling for the answer, “He’s just in his terrible twos.” Young, but not naïve, mom knew something more was wrong. “As a mother, you just say to yourself, ‘Something’s up with my baby.’ You just know,” Esther says.
Kash got a rash of tiny red dots and began throwing up, still unable to walk. Esther and David packed up their children and drove quickly to the pediatric emergency department at Valley Children’s Hospital. “When the ER doctors saw the rash, they said it was petechiae,” mom says. “As soon as they saw that, we went to the front of the line. The doctors did blood work that was available within a very short time.”
“How fast your life changes with just a couple of words,” Esther says. In Kash’s case, those words were, “Your child has leukemia.” The Saldanas’ child didn’t have just any kind of leukemia. It was Burkitt leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer that floods the bone marrow and bloodstream with defective white blood cells.
“Chemotherapy began only two nights later,” mom recalls. “It had to be treated immediately, and the doctors were right on top of it.” Kash began treatment with pediatric hematologists/oncologists Dr. Wendy Tcheng and Dr. Vonda Crouse.
“We have modified the treatment plan for Burkitt leukemia,” Dr. Crouse said. “The outcomes are better if we treat it more intensively over a shorter period of time.” While some patients can rest between rounds of chemotherapy, Kash received chemotherapy treatments nearly back-to-back from January through May 2014, with his healthcare team doing their best to make sure he was one of the 92 percent of children who survive with the new, more aggressive treatment. For the Saldanas, this meant that Valley Children’s was now their home-away-from-home.
“Kash’s parents were here to provide support for their son through the long chemotherapy regimen. Their presence made it possible for him to thrive,” Dr. Crouse says.
The medical and nursing team’s support staff were vitally important to the Saldanas’ day-to-day hospital experience. “It wasn’t just the doctors and nurses, case managers and social workers. The PCTs (patient care technicians) were incredible,” David says. “They made sure we took care of ourselves so we could be there for Kash.” Esther agrees: “We saw amazing teamwork.”
“Kash continued chemo for five months,” mom says. “He got painful sores in his mouth and had trouble eating.” But the family pressed on and supported their child in his fight.
“It really hit me hard when he started losing his hair,” David says. “We always used to get the same haircut.” Kash now sports a full head of hair, buzzed into a fade with a straight razor part, the same spiffy haircut as on his billboard.
Kash now remembers little of his hospital experience. “I got hurt,” he summarizes, gently pressing a blue rubber ball into brother David’s forehead.
Mom smiles. “Kash is not just a troublemaker,” Esther says affectionately. Hearing his name, Kash runs with his mother’s phone into a bedroom to watch his favorite music video. Mom runs in to the rescue. “He’s the ringleader. We play, I take a turn, he takes five turns.”
The Saldanas celebrated Kash’s final chemo treatment on June 27, 2014. “The experience didn’t feel like it was over until a couple of months went by,” Esther says. “He started walking again, and we realized he may be out of the woods."
“Because of Kash’s experience, we’re glad that other families can get help for their children right where they live,” Esther says, referring to the growing Valley Children’s Healthcare network that provides care throughout Central California. “We’re very grateful Valley Children’s is here,” David says.