Living the Life of Her Dreams

March 8, 2019

Nine years after being treated for a liver tumor, Emanuela is a happy, healthy fifth-grader and author of her own children’s book.

It was supposed to be just another well-baby visit when Anna Stilianessis took her two young chil­dren, Gerry and Emanuela, to see their pediatrician, Lisa Meli, D.O., a Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group physician, in 2009. As Gerry tickled Emanuela’s tummy while she was on the bed in the exam room, he looked up to his mother and asked what that lump was in his sister’s belly. “I’d never noticed it before,” Anna remembers, horrified, “even after all the times I changed her diapers or gave her baths.”

Anna showed it to the doctor who immediately sent then-15-month-old Emanuela for an ultrasound of the mass. After the ultrasound, Emanuela was sent to Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center. When they arrived, a team of oncologists came to speak to Anna and her husband, Chris.

“The doctors knew it was a tumor, but they didn’t know if it was cancer. We were admitted immediately,” she says. “The MRI was the next morning, and my life changed just like that. I was in shock. Who would ever think their child will have cancer? Those are not words any parent should have to hear.”

Wraparound Care

Before Anna even had time to recover her senses, Emanuela was enduring an eight-hour surgery where the lobe of her liver that contained a 10-centimeter tumor was removed along with the nearby lymph node and gallbladder. When the tumor was biopsied, it was diagnosed as hepatoblastoma, a rare tumor in the liver.

Following the surgery, Emanuela underwent four months of chemotherapy. “My first impression of Emanuela was that she was adorable, active and playful. Our goal was to keep her that way throughout the intensive treatment she received for her tumor,” says Burton Appel, M.D., a pediatric oncologist at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Appel used a coordinated care model to treat Emanuela and support her family through surgery, chemotherapy and follow-up care. That team approach included physicians, nurses, social workers, child life therapists and others working together to provide the very best care and support.

Dr. Appel referred Emanuela’s family to the Tomorrows Children’s Fund, a charitable organization that supplies a wide range of services to support families of children dealing with cancer and blood disorders. The organization, which is a large donor to Hackensack, provides services to reduce the emo­tional and financial burden that families face as well as a range of social pro­grams. Anna credits the Tomorrows Chil­dren’s Fund with giving her the sup­port she needed at this critical time. “I felt like I couldn’t leave Emanuela’s side, so the social worker kept checking up on me, and through the Tomorrows Children’s Fund, she arranged for free tickets for my son to see his favorite team, the Giants, play a game in person!”

Dr. Appel praises Anna and Chris who both managed to always be with their daughter during treatments and appointments. “Sometimes only one parent is able to come because of job require­ments, but both were at most appointments. It enabled us to get to know them as a family, and that’s very rewarding,” he says.

Dreaming On

Emanuela has been cancer-free for more than eight years. Over the years, she has had numerous follow-up tests and appointments, but no recur­rence of her tumor. Today she is a healthy fifth-grader with an athletic build, shiny dark hair that hangs to her waist and sparkly brown eyes. She loves being a cheerleader and performing jazz and lyrical dance. Anna says of Emanuela, “She’s a little sassy and she’s ready to go!”

One of Emanuela’s passions is her desire to travel—everywhere! As a celebration of her recov­ery from cancer, she and her mother wrote a book, Dream On, featuring Emanuela and her magical unicorn, Sparkles, as they travel to Paris, New York and Los Angeles, bringing hope to the world of childhood cancer. Her book is available online, and the profits support children’s cancer charities.

Today Anna and her family, who live in Wayne, New Jersey, sincerely thank Dr. Appel and Hackensack for saving Emanuela’s life and making it possible for her to lead the life of her dreams.

On the ninth anniversary of Emanuela complet­ing her treatment, Dr. Appel says, “I can honestly say she can do anything that any other girl her age does, and that was our goal—not only to cure the cancer, but to provide the same quality of life that her siblings and friends enjoy.”

What Is Hepatoblastoma?

Emanuela was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma at just 15 months old. It is a rare tumor that develops in the liver, yet is the most common malignant liver tumor that occurs in young children (usually by about age 3). If it is not diagnosed early, like Emanuela’s was, it can metastasize to other areas of the child’s body, especially the lungs. It is more common in caucasian children than other races and is more commonly found in boys. If you notice your child has developed any lump, contact your pediatrician immediately.

Learn about Hackensack Meridian Health’s commitment to compassionate, personalized cancer care for children.