Not Fighting Cancer Alone: Sydney’s Story

By Sydney Sigafus, cancer warrior and CHOC Children’s patient

As a teenager and an athlete, my life revolves around sports. As a sophomore at Foothill High School, I’m one of the sports anchors for our school newscast. I’m also a member of the JV girls’ basketball team, which has always been like a second family to me.

childhood cancer
Before fighting cancer, Sydney was a member of her school’s JV girls’ basketball team.

During last year’s summer league season, I started to have pains on the right side of my back. I thought I had simply pulled a muscle, so I told my mom about it. Off we went to the pediatrician, who sent us to get an MRI. We were referred to Dr. Nader Nassif, an orthopedic surgeon who sees patients at CHOC. He saw a spot on my upper femur that was small at the time, but that he wanted to keep an eye on. He said it could be a number of things— one of those being cancer— but he didn’t initially think that that’s what it was because of where the spot was on my bone and what it looked like. He told us to come back in three months for more scans.

By our next appointment, the spot had grown by a few millimeters, so we did a biopsy, which is a test that’s performed to examine tissue or cells from a certain part of the body. That test showed that the spot on my femur was cancerous. Dr. Nassif was surprised, since most teens with Ewing’s sarcoma have it in the knees and it grows very quickly, but mine was near my hip and grew very slowly.

Meeting my care team at CHOC

Dr. Nassif told my family that we were going to be working with Dr. Elyssa Rubin, a pediatric oncologist and director of the bone and soft tissue sarcoma treatment program at CHOC. I learned quickly that Dr. Rubin is not only your doctor but also your friend. She would come into my room and not only ask me how I was feeling, but she wanted to know if I was able to see my friends that weekend, if I had made it to the basketball game at school, or if I had seen the latest movie that just came out. I always felt like she cared about me not just as a patient, but as a person. She laid out the game plan very clearly for me and my parents and answered all the questions we had (and some that we asked over and over again). My treatment plan called for six rounds of chemotherapy before surgery and eight rounds after.

childhood cancer
“I learned quickly that Dr. Rubin is not only your doctor but also your friend,” Sydney says. “I always felt like she cared about me not just as a patient, but as a person.”

I was lucky to have the very best nurses. They were amazing throughout my entire journey. It stinks to have nausea or not be able to do something with my friends because my counts were down, or even be able go to school — but my nurses, especially my nurse practitioners Liz Torok and Jody Pathare, have made something that seems so tough, a lot easier.

Physical therapy has played a big role in my life after surgery. My physical therapist Robin Beauregard is a two-time Olympic medalist, so as an athlete, she helps me connect with my treatment. She’s no-nonsense and very witty like me, and it makes me really look forward to physical therapy sessions.

childhood cancer
Thanks to having an Olympic medal winner on her care team, Sydney was able to look forward to physical therapy sessions.

Another group that has made my journey so great has been the child life team. I can’t say enough good things about them, especially Kara, the child life specialist who works with adolescent and young adult patients. She heard I loved sports, and on day one of treatment, she brought me a huge basket filled with swag from my favorite sports teams and even a basketball hoop for my room. I assumed it was a one-time thing, but she has come to visit me every single time I’ve been at CHOC for treatment. She even came into the operating room with me when I needed an epidural for my surgery because I was scared and my parents couldn’t come into the OR with me. It was hard for my parents to be in the waiting room while I was in the OR, but knowing that I had Kara by my side made them feel so much better. During surgery, my tumor was removed and a prosthesis was put in for my upper femur. After finishing eight more rounds of chemotherapy after surgery, my scans confirmed that I was cancer free!

childhood cancer
During her treatment, Sydney quickly bonded with Kara, the child life specialist who works with adolescent and young adult patients.

Every single person I’ve met at CHOC has been amazing — especially the woman who cleaned my room. She called me princess!

Making the hospital feel like home

Not only has child life supported me on my journey, but they’ve also helped make the hospital feel less like a hospital. This goes beyond bringing an Xbox to your room to take your mind off your treatment. It starts with the way CHOC looks  can you imagine receiving treatment in a place that just had white walls and a white floor? CHOC is the opposite. It’s colorful. It has gardens you can go outside and sit in. There are playrooms everywhere. There’s a lounge that’s just for teens. I’m not musical or artistic, but for the patients that are, they’ll bring you instruments and introduce you to a music therapist, or bring you drawing and painting supplies.

Finding support in unexpected places

When I started this journey, I felt so alone. What are the chances I would know another teenager that is going through this? I soon realized that I did have someone who understood what I was going through, someone that I looked up to even before I was diagnosed with cancer. When I was a freshman, there was a senior at my school who was fighting osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer) in her knee. Claire was an athlete like me before she was diagnosed with cancer. Our school recognized her as Homecoming Queen during her treatment, and I remember watching her use crutches during the ceremony where she received her crown. At the time, I thought she was so amazing, and I was really moved by her story. Six months later I received my own diagnosis. Claire immediately reached out to me, met me at the hospital and has been offering me nonstop support ever since.

Another pleasant surprise was getting to meet the doctor who delivered me 15 years ago! Dr. Gigi Kroll is a member of the CHOC Children’s Foundation Board of Directors, and I got to meet her at a fundraising event for the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC. My mom had a complicated delivery when I was born, and I’d heard a lot growing up about how wonderful her doctor had been. It was so cool to meet her in person, and nice to know that she’s part of making CHOC the amazing hospital it is today.

Choosing to be positive

I’ve always been a happy and positive person, but I’m also realistic. Of course there’s going to be times on this journey when you’re sad, because who doesn’t get upset about cancer? But I’ve learned that if you’re sad, it’s going to make a bad situation ten times worse.

Even with all the support around you, it’s important to realize that there is only so much other people can do for you. There comes a point where you have to do things for yourself and choose to be positive.

childhood cancer
Red Nose Docs were a welcome distraction and source of positivity during Sydney’s treatment.

I try to be positive all the time. I have a great support system, which includes my family, my friends, my doctors, my nurses and child life.

On the day of my surgery, I set a goal to be able to walk back into school for the start of my junior year. A few weeks ago, I accomplished that goal! I’m starting to think about colleges, and I’m looking to study kinesiology. I want to become a pediatric physical therapist and an athletic trainer.

I’ve learned a lot from this journey. My family and I have been incredibly blessed by my care team and other families who have taken us under their wing, and I want to repay them by doing whatever I can to help motivate other patients who may be struggling to stay positive.

Learn more about the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Children's

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A Road Map to Surgery at CHOC Children’s

Having surgery at a hospital can be a scary thought for children and parents, alike.  Knowing what to expect can help alleviate fear and anxiety.  The photos below highlight some key aspects of the patient and family journey through the Tidwell Procedure Center at CHOC Children’s Hospital.

surgery at choc

Welcome to CHOC Children’s Hospital – a hospital for children and teens, only. When a child requires surgery, his needs are different than an adult. CHOC has specialized in pediatric surgery since we welcomed our first patient in 1964. Today, our nationally recognized surgeons perform the latest procedures using equipment customized to pediatric patients, from newborns to adolescents.

surgery at choc

After checking in at our first floor lobby, surgical patients and their families are directed to our Tidwell Procedure Center, which includes seven operating rooms, five procedure rooms and two cardiac catheterization labs. The Center boasts leading-edge technology and safety features, as well as a calm, healing environment. Here’s the Center’s bright, colorful lobby, featuring natural light, bubble columns and interesting artwork. There’s also a family room and playroom.

surgery at choc

We want our patients and their siblings to still have the opportunity to act like kids while facing the adult issues of surgery. In addition to a playroom in the lobby, we have an area for play, stocked with books and toys in pre-op. Dedicated child life specialists help normalize the experience by making the environment less strange. Providing distraction and developmentally appropriate education, child life specialists are important members of the surgical team.

surgery at choc

Child life specialists are at the bedside to provide developmentally appropriate education. Patients are able to see pictures of the operating rooms on iPads, which helps to limit stress and anxiety without the use of medication.

surgery at choc

Before heading into the operating room, patients stop at what is affectionately called the “kissing spot.” Here’s where they can say “see you later” to their loved ones before “taking a nap” for surgery.

surgery at choc

Child life specialists escort patients into the operating rooms and to provide distraction and emotional support while pediatric anesthesiologists and other staff members prepare patients for surgery.

surgery at choc

Following surgery, patients recover in our PACU (post anesthesia care unit). As soon as the patient is stabilized, parents/legal guardians are escorted into the area. During this time, patients need as much rest as possible to help their bodies heal and give pain medication time to take effect. The environment is kept calm and quiet. From here, the patient will either be taken to a hospital room, or discharged home.

Our physicians, nurses and staff are dedicated to getting kids better and back to their normal activities as quickly as possible. Patients and families are our partners in this effort; knowing what to expect before, during and after surgery can make a big difference on the experience and recovery. For more information, visit www.choc.org/surgery.

Take a virtual tour of the Tidwell Procedure Center

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Child Life Supports Family on Hospital Journey

Two-year-old Aliyah Islava was fighting what her family thought was a mild stomach virus. When the symptoms did not improve, mom Rosemary took her, at the recommendation of her pediatrician, to the emergency department. Within 24 hours, Aliyah was undergoing brain surgery at CHOC Children’s Hospital.

The diagnosis of stage 4 medulloblastoma, a fast-growing, aggressive brain tumor, shocked Rosemary and her husband Hector and propelled the entire family, including Aliya’s siblings Branden, 10, and Miranda, 5, on a life-changing journey. The family had the support of the entire CHOC care team, which to their surprise included the Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department.

Trained professionals with degrees in child life, child development, human development or recreation therapy, CHOC’s child life specialists strive to normalize the hospital environment for patients and their families. They help make things like medical equipment and procedures feel less strange so that patients and their families feel more at ease in the hospital.

Rosemary recalls with fondness the first time she met Ashley, an oncology child life specialist, shortly after Aliyah was admitted.

“Everything was happening so fast. We were in shock and terrified. Ashley helped explain everything and calmed our fears. She also explained to our other two children what was happening, so we could focus on Aliyah,” says Rosemary.

Aliyah spent almost seven months in the hospital. Child life specialists used distraction techniques and medical play to help her every step of the way. They also helped Branden and Miranda by continuing to explain what was going on with their little sister and giving them opportunities for play.

“Child life helped normalize the entire experience for Aliyah, Branden and Miranda, and made sure they didn’t miss out on just being kids. Even more amazing, they were never afraid, not even Aliyah,” says Rosemary.

A big part of childhood is birthday parties. Aliyah was very ill in the oncology intensive care unit when she was about to turn 3. Rosemary wasn’t sure her daughter would be permitted out of the unit. But as soon as Aliyah got clearance from the doctors for a short visit to the playroom, child life organized an impromptu birthday celebration.

“I will never forget the party that child life planned. In a short amount of time, they managed to make a poster, collect presents and sing to her,” remembers Rosemary.

Following Aliyah’s last chemotherapy treatment, more than a year after her diagnosis, child life specialists sang once again; this time, “Happy Last Chemo.”  They continue to support Aliyah today as she faces additional health challenges. Most recently, a child life specialist accompanied Aliyah into the operating room. Aliyah didn’t even need medication to keep her calm. She was comforted knowing child life was by her side, says Rosemary.

“Their patience, their understanding, their compassion…these are just some of the things that make child life specialists so unique,” she explains. “They bring you hope and step in when we as parents are overcome by worry and fear. I am very thankful for having them as part of our journey.”

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CHOC Celebrates Child Life Week

The Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department at CHOC Children’s strives to normalize the hospital environment for our patients and families. “Normalizing” the hospital experience is the process of making things like medical equipment and procedures feel less strange or foreign. By doing this, patients and their family members can feel more at ease while at the hospital and will be able to focus on what is most important: feeling better.

Patients, families and staff were treated to a week-long celebration of special activities and visitors. Take a look inside the specialized therapeutic programs that are just one part of this special area of CHOC.





Learn more about CHOC's child life services




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Meet the Pet Therapy Team: Magnolia

Stacey always had a soft spot for animals, dogs in particular. She had a family dog growing up, but never imagined they could be anything more than a beloved family pet. That all changed when her dad lost his vision 15 years ago.

Magnolia, a friendly and energetic golden retriever, joined her family shortly thereafter. The puppy immediately took a liking to Stacey’s father, who found that the dog’s energy lifted his spirits and comforted him.

“We could see how she made him feel. He didn’t know that the rest of our family would stare at the two of them together, but we could see it working,” Stacey says. “Being around animals can be soothing for many people. It’s nice to see her be able to give that love away to people. It’s a very simple thing to put a dog on a bed, but it can have a powerful impact.”

pet therapy
Magnolia posing with her mom Stacey who is a CHOC volunteer, and her grandpa who was the inspiration behind her becoming a pet therapy dog.

Her father was already familiar with the pet therapy program at CHOC Children’s, and urged Stacey to pursue it as a “career” for Magnolia. As part of The Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department, not only does the pet therapy program aim to minimize stress and anxiety for patients at CHOC, but it also offers a “normal-life” experience that lets hospitalized kids be kids.

“My dad knew how much time I love spending with Magnolia, and we had the opportunity to give back. CHOC saved my life when I got spinal meningitis at age four, and joining the pet therapy program is my way of giving back,” says Stacey, who still has the Choco bear she was given as a patient 43 years ago.

All pet therapy dogs at CHOC are extensively trained, and then later certified by Pet Partners, a national organization that registers the human/pet team once they pass an obedience test.

Having been a teacher for over 25 years, Stacey was familiar with sticking to a lesson plan and providing special one-on-one tutoring for a student needing extra help with a tricky subject. She just never imagined that her student would be her dog! She did all of Magnolia’s training leading up to her obedience test.

Now a certified pet therapy dog and proud member of the CHOC team, Magnolia makes 24 visits per year to CHOC Children’s Hospital. She spends her time at CHOC visiting patients in various inpatient units and the emergency department, but is on her best behavior whenever one of those patients happens to be one of Stacey’s kindergarten students.

“Magnolia is very different at the hospital than she is at home or with the kids in our neighborhood,” Stacey says. “She is energetic and silly at home. But as soon as she goes through the front doors of CHOC, she knows she is at work. She knows it is time to be mellow and calm.”

When she’s not at work, Magnolia enjoys running leash-free in the desert; shopping at dog-friendly malls; and watching bunnies, squirrels and ducks.





Learn more about CHOC's child life services




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