Ringing in the new year cancer-free

Skinnier arms and legs and exhaustion to the point of taking naps. These were the initial signs that left Jamie wondering if there was something wrong with her 5-year-old son, Jacob. Weeks later, the most alarming sign appeared: blood clots in his urine. 

 Jacob was taken to his local pediatrician and it was there a large lump on his lower left abdomen was discovered. Knowing it was something much more serious, Jacob’s pediatrician immediately sent Jacob and his family to CHOC at Mission Hospital. 

 “Our world was changed” 

When Jacob arrived, an X-Ray and a CT scan were ordered to further observe the lump on his abdomen. The results showed a tumor on his left kidney and over 30 small tumors growing on his lungs. DrKenneth Kwon, an emergency medicine specialist, delivered the news that Jacob has Wilms tumor  type of kidney cancer commonly found in young children. Jacob’s cancer was stage 4 and had spread to his lungs. 

“We were devastated,”  Jamie recalls“In just a few hours, our world was changed. 

Jacob was transported via ambulance to the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Hospital in Orange. Instead of feeling scared or worried, Jacob enjoyed watching Toy Story during the journey alongside his newly acquired rocket ship balloon and stuffed monkey. These small comforts during an anxious situation are one thing that helps differentiate a pediatric hospital. 

 The plan 

“The first time coming to CHOC was extremely difficult,”  Jamie says. “But the nurses and staff could tell we were struggling with the news and they did everything they could to make us feel comfortable. They also explained everything that was happening to Jacob in a way that we could understand.” 

CHOC patient Jacob and his family
Jacob and his family

Dr. Josephine HaDuonga CHOC pediatric oncologist, recommended chemotherapy for six weeks and then re-evaluating the growth of the tumor. Jacob came to CHOC’s Dhont Family Foundation Outpatient Infusion Center once a week to receive his initial chemotherapy. Though the process was hard and challenging, especially during a pandemic, Jacob put on a brave face every time he came in. He eventually created bonds with his child life specialist, nurses in the clinic and Dr. Agnes Horvath, a pediatric oncologist/hematologist at CHOC. 

After the initial six weeks, chemotherapy had shrunk the tumor on his kidney by almost 50%The rest of the tumor could be removed by surgery. 

CHOC patient Jacob during cancer treatment
Jacob flashes a smile behind his mask, as he plays on a tablet in CHOC’s outpatient infusion center.

“The day of surgery was extremely tough on my husband and I,” Jamie says. “Having to experience your young child go through something like this is already hard, but to add a pandemic on top was even harder. However, seeing Jacob’s resilience was what got us all through it.” 

 In the spring, Dr. Peter Yua CHOC pediatric general and thoracic surgeon, successfully removed the rest of the tumor on Jacob’s kidney. However, Jacob was not in the clear just yet; there were still the small tumors on his lungs that needed to be tackled. 

CHOC patient Jacob and Dr. Yu
Jacob and Dr. Peter Yu give a thumbs up on surgery day

For the next 31 weeks, Jacob underwent stronger chemotherapy five days a week as well as radiation that targeted the tumors on his lungs. During that time, there were many trips to the hospital for scans, labs, appointments and a few inpatient staysThere were hard and tough days, but Jacob remembers the simple moments of receiving toys from the Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department and getting his favorite snacks.  

“In those months, we leaned heavily on our family, friends, faith and the expertise of our oncology team,” Jamie says. “They are the ones who helped us see the light.” 

 Bright, ringing moment 

Towards the end of summer, Jacob received one of his last CT scans. The only items that showed were two small spots on his lungs that doctors deemed to be scar tissue. 

Jacob was declared cancer-free. 

A few short days later, Jacob was able to participate in a special tradition to help celebrate the news: ringing the bell. 

CHOC patient Jacob and Dr. Josephine HaDuong
Jacob and Dr. Josephine HaDuong on bell-ringing day

Each patient who completes their last chemotherapy treatment at CHOC is cheered on by nurses, doctors and staff, and has an opportunity to ring a bell to signify the end of a long journey. The plaque on the bell reads: 

 Ring this bell, three times well. 

Its toll to clearly say, my treatment is done, this course is done, and I’m on my way! 

“It was an emotional moment for the whole family,” Jamie says. “We have all been waiting for this day! Jacob could not stop smiling.” 

Since that moment, Jacob has now celebrated his 6th birthday. He’s excited to play sports again and hopefully start school in January. 

“Even though it was an extremely tough journey, there is good that came out of it,” Jamie says. “Jacob knows he’s strong and brave, and we couldn’t be prouder of him.” 

Two Oncologists with Special Interest in Immunotherapy Join Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC

Two oncologists have joined the team of nationally-recognized specialists of the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC. Dr. Josephine HaDuong and Dr. Ashley Plant were both fellowship trained at two of the country’s top cancer programs, and share research interest in immunotherapy and targeted therapies.

Dr. Josephine HaDuong is board-certified in pediatric hematology and oncology, and was drawn to the Cancer Institute for what she refers to as its gold standard of care.

“The Hyundai Cancer Institute is a growing center that strives to be among the best. The team provides patients access to cutting-edge clinical trials that may lead to breakthroughs in pediatric cancer,” says Dr. HaDuong.

Her research is driven, in large part, by her clinical interest in caring for patients with solid tumors. A published author and principal investigator in a number of studies, Dr. HaDuong’s major research activities include exploring developmental therapeutics in solid tumors using immunomodulatory and targeted agents, as well as functional imaging in bone and soft tissue sarcomas using magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Following medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a full tuition merit scholarship, Dr. HaDuong completed her residency and pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship training at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She was honored with the Fellow of the Year, Excellence in Teaching Award.

She is a member of numerous professional associations, including American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Society of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology, and North American Consortium for Histiocytosis. In addition to English, she speaks Spanish and Vietnamese.

Raised in Orange County, Dr. HaDuong is thrilled to be back in her hometown. “I have always wanted to return home to serve the children and families in Orange County. I look forward to being a part of an incredible team who works relentlessly to end cancer,” says Dr. HaDuong.

Dr. Ashley Plant is committed to growing CHOC’s neuro-oncology treatment program, and eager to bring new therapies to patients with brain tumors. “I look forward to collaborating with academia and industry to bring early clinical trials to CHOC, especially in the area of immunotherapy. I am also excited to partner with my new colleagues to advance the work the Cancer Institute has been doing to reduce the long-term toxicities of cancer therapy,” says Dr. Plant.

Dr. Plant is a published author whose research interests include early phase clinical trial design for pediatric brain tumors. Her most recent project is a phase 1 clinical trial for a neo-antigen heat shock protein vaccine for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a fatal brain tumor. She hopes to enroll patients in this trial within the next year. She considers herself fortunate to have worked under world-renowned immuno-oncologists Dr. Glenn Dranoff and Dr. Jerome Ritz at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. There, she won the Young Investigator Award for a project evaluating clonality of T cell receptors in pediatric gliomas.

Following medical school at Stanford University, Dr. Plant finished her residency at University of California, Los Angeles. Her fellowship training in pediatric hematology/oncology was completed at Boston Children’s Hospital. She received additional training in clinical trials and public health at Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

“I was attracted to CHOC because the hospital prioritizes excellent clinical care of patients above all else,” says Dr. Plant. “The hospital’s commitment to patient-and-family-centered care is something I wholeheartedly support. Cancer affects everyone in the family – physically, emotionally, psychologically and sometimes even financially. If we fail to address these issues, we are not completely caring for our patients and their families.”

Learn more about the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC.

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