When Bella Yakos was in treatment at Lurie Children's for Stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma, she and her family benefitted from the comfort and support of friends, work colleagues, members of their community and others. For Bella, perhaps the greatest incentive to get better was the knowledge that her best friend, Baxter, was waiting for her to come home and play.
Baxter is 9-year-old Bella's Chihuahua.
"On our way back home from the hospital after chemo treatments, we'd sometimes visit the Anti-Cruelty Society to cheer Bella up," says her dad, Ryan. "That's how we found Baxter, and they've been best friends ever since."
When Bella was 7, she began showing signs of fatigue and lethargy. Her parents took her to their pediatrician who, after detecting that Bella had swollen lymph nodes and an enlarged liver, immediately referred them to Lurie Children's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, ranked 11th in the nation by U.S.News & World Report.
There, tests revealed that she had a tumor the size of a football that was pressing against her liver, kidneys, lungs and heart. Biopsies were performed, and a few days later Bella's parents learned their daughter had a form of cancer that accounts for 15 percent of all cancer deaths in children and has a high relapse rate. She would need to undergo a 15-month treatment regimen that included chemotherapy, surgery, a stem cell transplant, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and required numerous inpatient stays.
"When you hear all that, you have two choices," says Bella's mom, Jen. "You can curl up into a ball, or you can say, ‘OK, this is what we're facing, and we'll do whatever we need to do to stay strong for Bella.'"
Ryan and Jen credit Bella's doctors, nurses, Family Services and other staff who provided excellent care for both Bella and the entire family. Bella's medical team included hematologist-oncologists Jennifer Reichek, MD, and Fellow Jessica Clymer, MD; surgeon Rashmi Kabre, MD; and nurse practitioners Alexis Baby and Patricia Rosenstock.
Ryan says Bella's stem cell transplant, and subsequent four weeks in isolation was the most difficult part of her treatment.
"She slept sitting up in a chair for nine straight days after the transplant," he says. "She wouldn't eat, talk or let anyone touch her. About the only thing that cheered her up was looking at a photo of Baxter."
Both Ryan and Jen said they were concerned about the toll Bella's treatments would take on her emotionally.
"Bella was a lot stronger than we thought, though," says Ryan. "She never complained about going to the hospital. She knew what she had to do to get better and did it."
After Bella's final hospital stay in October 2015, the "old" Bella began to reassert herself, and she returned to school full time.
In remission for eight months, Bella receives coordinated care from both her medical team at Lurie Children's and one at a children's hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since January, Bella has been enrolled in a clinical trial there of an oral therapy that has shown promise in reducing the relapse rate of children with high-risk neuroblastoma. Her doctors at Lurie Children's were instrumental in enrolling Bella in the study.
"Bella is essentially back to normal, playing softball, swimming, having sleepovers with friends and playing with Baxter," says Jen. "She's pretty much put it behind her, but Bella knows her cancer could come back, and that we're doing everything we can to prevent that from happening."
Bella's family and friends have given back to Lurie Children's in a number of ways, including participating in major fundraising events for the hospital. On September 15 at 9 a.m., Bella and her family will be live in the studio to share their story with Eric & Kathy on 101.9fm THE MIX.
"It's important for us to support Lurie Children's," says Ryan. "After all, the hospital saved Bella's life. It's also important to support pediatric cancer research, not only at Lurie Children's but nationwide. Most people don't know that only four percent of funding for cancer research goes to pediatric cancer research, and giving is the best way to ensure that we continue to make advances that will save the lives of children."