Childhood Cancer Awareness Month: Zoe’s Cause for Celebration

Six-year-old Zoe was involuntarily familiar with the emergency room. For one reason or another, she had landed in the ER several times in her young life and, more often than not, ended up having surgery as part of the visit. While this pattern wasn’t something Zoe’s mom, Yamilet, and family accepted or adjusted to, it unfortunately became the expectation. That’s why in January, when Zoe started experiencing out-of-the-ordinary symptoms such as discolored/bloody urine and stomach pain, Yamilet was hoping another ER visit wasn’t around the corner.

When Zoe’s symptoms became more alarming and took a turn for the worse, the Perez family made their way over to a familiar place once again. They arrived at Lurie Children’s Emergency Department where they knew they’d receive the expert care they needed. There, an ultrasound determined Zoe had a six-centimeter mass on her kidney that needed to be removed immediately. Yamilet was soon introduced to Pediatric Surgeon Dr. Anthony Chin who would perform Zoe’s surgery and deliver some of the first points of clarity in what was becoming an extremely concerning situation for the family.

He informed the Perez’s that the mass on Zoe’s kidney appeared to be a tumor that was near rupture, if not already past the point, given the blood turning up in her urine, and alerted them about the possibility of it being cancerous. Yamilet recalled the undeniable sinking feeling this caused her, but she continued to take things one step at a time.

From there it was a swift transition into surgery where Dr. Chin removed the tumor as well as the impacted kidney. Yamilet says surgery went great, Dr. Chin did an “amazing job,” and that Zoe did really well, but then came the difficult period between her recovery and receiving the pathology report results.

“It was the longest wait of our lives,” said Yamilet. “A lot of things run through a parent’s mind.”

A Shocking Diagnosis – Wilms Tumor

A week following Zoe’s surgery, the Perez’s finally had an answer: Zoe had Wilms Tumor, also known as Nephroblastoma, a cancerous tumor originating in the cells of the kidney and the most common type of kidney cancer in children (around 400 children are diagnosed with a Wilms tumor each year in the U.S.). Most cases of Wilms are considered sporadic (occur by chance) and are the result of genetic mutations that affect cell growth in the kidney. These mutations generally arise after birth, but, in some cases, children are born with a genetic alteration that predisposes them to cancer.

Never having heard of Wilms tumor before, Yamilet recalls the overwhelming shock she and Zoe’s dad felt. After receiving the news, they wanted to focus their energy on supporting Zoe and Zoe’s brother, Liam, to make sure they understood what was happening and what was to come.

“We sat with them and told them exactly what was going on. They knew everything from the beginning,” said Yamilet. “It was important to us to keep Zoe in the loop and not keep secrets from her, because if she was going to hear it, we wanted her to hear it from us. We’re her support group.”

Given the diagnosis, Zoe’s care team broadened to include collaboration and oversight from experts in the Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, Neuro-Oncology and Stem Cell Transplantation. Yamilet recalls Oncologists Dr. Amy Walz and Dr. Abraham Haimed providing Zoe “the very best care” while Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Lea Mayer was crucial in supporting’s the family’s oncology journey and treatment plan. Nurse Karen and Medical Assistant Maegan were there every step of the way brightening Zoe’s days.

A Year of Uncertainties and Cancer Treatment

Despite typically knowing what to expect from their ER visits, 2022 became a year of drastic uncertainties for the Perez family as Zoe began to go undergo cancer treatment.

“She’s had a week of a radiation, three blood transfusions, one platelet transfusion, two hospital stays, 34 rounds of chemo, and a whole bunch of pokes…it’s been a road,” said Yamilet. “Life can really change from one day to the next.”

One of the ways they persisted through the challenging last eight months was with unwavering support from friends, family, Zoe’s school, and her care team at Lurie Children’s.

“So many people have stepped up and helped us in so many ways.” Yamilet said. “They did fundraisers, made sure we had food to eat, watched our son while we were at the hospital – they were just there for us.”

Yamilet is also especially grateful to Jessica King, LCSW, a former social worker on Zoe’s team who worked seamlessly with Zoe’s school social worker to make sure an appropriate and accommodating plan was in place for her.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Yamilet hopes other families struggling with a cancer diagnosis know this: “You don’t have to do it alone. Let people help you and surround yourself with people who will be there for you along the way, because you need to lean on others,” she said.

For the Perez’s, being involved with pediatric cancer organizations such as Cal’s Angels and Bear Necessities was a bright spot through their experience.

September Celebrations

This month, Zoe will reach an amazing milestone. She’ll visit Lurie Children’s for her final round of chemotherapy and take part in the special tradition of ringing the end-of-chemo bell, which marks the completion of treatment. Just a few days after her final round she’ll turn seven years old, and is also awaiting a call from Make-A-Wish Foundation to fulfill an extra special request.

While Zoe and her family had a worrisome start to the year, they’re thrilled to have made it through to these upcoming moments of joy and celebration September will bring. Yamilet is looking forward to returning to “normal life” and watching Zoe experience her favorite things – Roblox, painting, and playing at the park with her brother – from the other side.

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