By Briana Vannozzi
Looking at 14-year-old Ava Delforno, it’s hard to imagine this picture of health once battled years of chemo. Ava was just shy of her third birthday when she received a diagnosis of leukemia.
“I was sitting in the office with her and her breathing was very labored and the next thing I know there are police at the door of her examination room and paramedics were there and the ambulance came, and my world, at that moment, obviously I knew something horrible was happening,” said Ava’s mother Gina Delforno.
She’s nearly nine years removed from treatment, and cancer free. But routine doctor’s visits are still part of her schedule — and they will be for the rest of her life.
“People would say they got to go play outside, ride their bike, do all outside stuff, swimming and you know, I didn’t really have a lot of that because if I got a cut or something, I couldn’t do that. So you know, I missed out, but not any more,” Ava said.
“When these kids are diagnosed, most of them are really young — sometimes a year old or even younger — so they have a full life ahead of them. And they are obviously growing and maturing and their organs are growing and maturing so there’s a lot that needs to be followed,” said St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist Dr. Pooja Bhagia.
As survival rates go up — nearly 90 percent of childhood leukemia patients and about 80 percent overall live five years after diagnosis — the need for specialized care to follow these patients into adulthood and treat any late side effects is also growing.
“The most common effects we see in these patients are cardiac effects and endocrine effects like growth hormone deficiency because they’ve not yet hit their growth spurts and problems with fertility in the future when they try to have kids,” Dr. Bhagia said.
Teams of doctors at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson are trained to catch any signs that could indicate something is wrong. Dr. Bhagia explains the most effective pediatric chemo therapy medications, like the ones Ava received, are also highly cardio toxic.
“Some of the chemotherapy medications unfortunately can cause second malignancy,” said Dr. Bhagia.
Like most medical conditions, each case is unique which makes it difficult to predict long term effects for patients. Doctors say it all depends on the type of cancer and where it is in the body, the age patients start treatment and their overall health before they were diagnosed.
“It’s a blessing to wake up every morning after going through that chemo,” said Nataly Padilla.
Twenty-one-year-old Padilla was diagnosed with lymphoma six years ago. She lost her hair and had to be home schooled. So counselors are on hand to help with the psychological tag that gets attached to the diagnosis.
“Some of them are older when they’re diagnosed so they remember all of their treatment. Other ones are babies so they don’t really know that much, but they have questions and they ask their parents so that’s where I come in,” said Long-Term Follow-up Counselor Ashley Marchese.
Doctors say they put treatment in the front of their minds, so anxiety about another cancer isn’t lingering in the back of their patients’ minds.