Pediatric Cancer: Searching for Answers

October 30, 2020

Back in September 2016, Olivia Vanderhoof was an energetic, outgoing 7-year-old excited to start 2nd grade in Hillsdale, New Jersey. That all changed when she began experiencing disturbing symptoms of a relentless fever, weakness and skin peeling.

Concerned, Nichole Vanderhoof took her young daughter to their family’s pediatrician. “The doctor thought it was just a viral thing, a wait-and-see type of thing,” Nichole says. “Nothing showed up in her bloodwork that caused concern.”

But a mother’s intuition is strong. Nichole didn’t know what was going on with Olivia, but she knew she needed answers. She took Olivia to the Emergency Department at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center.

There, the infectious disease team first treated Olivia for Kawasaki disease, a condition that causes inflammation in the walls of blood vessels and is most common in infants and children. But her symptoms weren’t typical.

This time, a father’s intuition proved strong. “Honestly, at that point, I think I was in denial,” Nichole says. “My husband, Eddie, really had a sixth sense that something else was wrong and we needed to explore other areas. He worked with the care team to expand testing.”

Olivia’s doctors conducted a scan that revealed frightening results. “The scan was lit up like a Christmas tree with the number of concerns on it,” Nichole says. “That pattern could only be explained by cancer.”

Down That Road Before

Olivia was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: anaplastic large-cell lymphoma. This type of lymphoma comprises only about 1 percent of all non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas and involves abnormal growth of T cells.

Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to many different areas of Olivia’s body, including in her bone marrow, and she was diagnosed at stage 4. “We knew it was not good and we needed to get this turned around very quickly,” Nichole recalls.

The news was twice as devastating because Eddie had battled cancer himself just two years prior. He was successfully treated for leukemia at John Theurer Cancer Center and received a bone marrow transplant in 2014.

Olivia’s rare diagnosis qualified her for a promising clinical trial at the Children’s Hospital, funded by Tackle Kids Cancer, a philanthropic initiative to raise money for pediatric cancer research and patient care programs. The clinical trial combines chemotherapy with a medication to reduce the risk of relapse.

“We felt like [participating in the clinical trial] was our best hope because this all came on so fast and furious,” Nichole says. “We felt like we had to do what we could to push it back.”

Road to Remission

Olivia began her treatment regimen right away—she would receive a week of chemotherapy as an inpatient at the hospital, then spend three weeks at home, and repeat.

Because her immune system was so compromised, Olivia was unable to attend school during her treatment, which wore on her emotionally.

“Olivia is very social and loves her friends, so that was really hard,” Nichole says. “But the team at the Children’s Hospital organized activities for her, like crafts, and kept her involved in things. They also had the right balance about how far to push the kids, when they just didn’t want to do something. They’re really experts at all of this.”

The chemotherapy and clinical trial were a tremendous success: Olivia has been in remission since March 2017.

“There wasn’t a person on our care team who wasn’t amazing in every aspect,” Nichole says. “They are truly treating the whole child.”

Today, you’d never know that Olivia had such a courageous battle with cancer. She’s a healthy and active 6th grader, who loves playing sports, dancing competitively and being with her friends. Eddie is still doing well, too.

“Everyone is 100 percent healthy. We are incredibly fortunate that both Eddie and Olivia have been treated and recovered so well,” Nichole says.

She has advice for other parents who may be facing similar battles: “If something doesn’t feel right with your child, seek help as soon as possible. Don’t wait if something doesn’t seem right.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.