Journey to Wellness
Family goes into ‘fight mode’ to beat young daughter’s cancer
Ashlei Frazier couldn’t imagine her young daughter who appeared happy and healthy not making it to her first day of school or even her next birthday.
So when she learned her little girl Madyn’s blood test during a routine well-baby exam indicated an alarmingly high white blood cell count, her initial reaction was, “Kids – babies – don’t get cancer. Right?”
Madyn was only 18 months old. She looked a little pale. Ashlei assumed she probably only had a virus. But Madyn’s pediatrician suspected cancer and immediately referred her to Valley Children’s Cancer and Blood Diseases Center for further evaluation and diagnosis.
First visit at Valley Children’s
Ashlei, her husband Jeremy, their eldest daughter Leila, and Madyn arrived at Central California’s only dedicated tertiary care pediatric facility for the first time. “It looked beautiful,” Ashlei said, referring to the main entrance at Valley Children’s Hospital. “We were nervous and scared. The security guard was so friendly; it made a difference.”
The Clovis family anxiously awaited more test results while video episodes of “Dora the Explorer” played in the waiting room. A nurse poked her head in: “We’ll get through this,” she said calmly.
“We’ll always remember that, it was so encouraging,” Ashlei said. “We knew our lives were about to change forever.”
Dr. J. Daniel Ozeran, an experienced pediatric hematologist/oncologist, confirmed the parents’ greatest fear: Madyn has leukemia. It’s very aggressive. Treatment needs to begin right away.
As the Fraziers grasped the enormity of the situation, their emotions raced.
“Valley Children’s is part of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG),” the Fraziers heard Dr. Ozeran’s steady voice continue, referring to the world’s largest organization devoted to childhood cancer research. “That means we have the same latest treatments as every other hospital that treats childhood cancer and is a COG member. Wherever you go, you’ll get the same treatment – just different faces and scenery.”
“From that moment, we knew we were in the right place,” Ashlei said, wrapping her arms lovingly around Madyn sitting on her lap at a local coffee shop. “Dr. Ozeran’s confidence, his demeanor, made our family feel safe. He was the best person to deliver the news.”
“Dr. Ozeran said to plan on two-and-a-half years of treatment,” Jeremy said. “He believed that Madyn would eventually be a healthy girl starting kindergarten. We said, ‘Let’s do this!’ We immediately went into fight mode.”
Most common childhood cancer
Madyn’s form of childhood cancer – acute lymphoblastic leukemia, known as ALL – is the most common childhood cancer. Treatment for ALL has a high success rate.
ALL is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphoblasts, an immature form of T or B lymphocytes (cells that are supposed to help fight infection).
The leukemia cells do not work like normal lymphocytes and are not able to defend against infection very well. Also, as the number of leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, less room is available for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets to be made. This may lead to infection, anemia and easy bleeding.
ALL usually becomes worse quickly if not treated. “Madyn could have died within weeks if she hadn’t been diagnosed when she was,” Ashlei said. “We’re so thankful. We asked a lot of questions, and we put our trust in the doctors and the team.”
Every year, Valley Children’s Cancer and Blood Diseases Center diagnoses more than 120 new children from throughout Central California with childhood cancer. A busy pediatric cancer and blood diseases center on the West Coast, the Center ranks in the top 4 percent of therapeutic enrollments to National Cancer Institute studies through COG – contributing valuable research that may help improve childhood cancer treatments for the future.
“It takes a special person to be an oncologist,” Jeremy said, “and Valley Children’s has them.”
Within hours of Madyn’s diagnosis, Dr. Michael Allshouse, Valley Children’s medical director, pediatric surgery, surgically inserted a mediport into Madyn’s tiny chest to make her cancer therapy easier. Her spinal fluid was also checked for signs of leukemia cells.
Madyn’s journey to wellness had begun. The first year of her treatment was especially difficult, sometimes filled with daily injections of medicine, weeks of hospitalization, months-long stretches of chemotherapy, and periodic bone marrow procedures at Valley Children’s.
When Madyn’s hair began falling out in clumps due to the effects of treatment, Jeremy asked her, “‘Hey, want hair like daddy’s?’ and she said, ‘Yeah!’”
“She was so beautiful bald,” Ashlei said. “It was like a badge of honor.”
There were times when the steroid treatment used to combat the cancer caused Madyn’s slender frame to suddenly expand two clothing sizes, requiring even her car seat be readjusted. “Then she’d just lose all the weight,” Ashlei said.
Making the unbearable bearable
Valley Children’s compassionate team – from doctors and nurses to social workers and child life specialists – made an unbearable situation bearable. “They put us at ease with a smile, a laugh or uplifting comment,” Ashlei said. “They’d remember little things about us and make those personal connections.”
The Fraziers recall, for example, when they originally met Dr. Ozeran at the Hospital he lightheartedly asked who tracked mud into the room. Or the time when Dr. Allshouse commented on Jeremy’s favorite pro football team. Or when Dr. Ozeran saw Madyn sitting proudly in his office chair he let her spin around in it.
“Sometimes they would just ask, ‘How are you doing?’” Jeremy said. “They made Madyn and our entire family feel cared for.”
While Madyn doesn’t remember much about those tough days, her parents and medical team were impressed with her resilience and attitude. “Madyn is just a great kid,” Dr. Ozeran said. “She doesn’t complain about anything. She’s always smiling. She goes with the flow.”
Dr. Ozeran’s colleague, Dr. Faisal Razzaqi, one of Valley Children’s nine, board-certified pediatric hematologists/oncologists, couldn’t agree more. In fact, Dr. Razzaqi still tries to snag Madyn as his own patient. “We all immediately tried to be her friend,” Dr. Razzaqi said with a chuckle.
‘That’s my hospital’
Fortunately, Madyn’s condition didn’t require a bone marrow transplant or radiation therapy like some children with ALL. October 2015 marks two years since her last bone marrow biopsy. “That was the best day of our lives,” Ashlei said. “No more chemo!”
Madyn continues follow-up visits at Valley Children’s to ensure she remains healthy. In another year, she will begin Valley Children’s Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program.
Due to improved cancer therapies and supportive care, an overwhelming majority of childhood cancer patients survive. However, the same treatments that cure cancer patients may put them at risk for long-term health problems. The survivorship program serves this vulnerable population by providing them needed education, support and treatment.
“Before Madyn became ill, we talked about how neither of our kids ever needed to go to Valley Children’s,” Ashlei said. “Now we know that can change at any moment.”
Grateful that the Valley’s only pediatric cancer program is nearby, the Fraziers still think of Valley Children’s Hospital as a “home away from home.” Whenever Madyn sees Valley Children’s from a distance or on TV, her response is consistent: “That’s my hospital!”
“Dr. Ozeran said he had every hope Madyn would start kindergarten healthy and well – and here we are,” Jeremy said beaming, watching Madyn playing with her sister just days before starting kindergarten. “Madyn has her whole life ahead of her – because of Valley Children’s.”