Conquering Children’s Cancer

When 14-year-old Holly Benningfield was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), it was a complete surprise to her. She was an active teenager who, as she put it, did “normal stuff like clean the kitchen floor and help load and unload the dishwasher.” She went to karate two or three times a week and had a pet rabbit named Ginger.

All that changed in a matter of days. Holly said her throat had been bothering her and the lymph nodes in her neck were very swollen. She was given a CT scan at the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis, and admitted to the hospital.

“They knocked me out for six days, and when I woke up, they told me I had T-cell ALL leukemia,” she said. “And that they found a huge mass across my airway and across my chest and heart.”

During Holly’s first week in the hospital, she learned about the changes (such as losing her hair) and challenges ahead, but the reality didn’t hit her until she was free to go home at the end of the week. “I started crying,” Holly said, “because I realized that I wasn’t going to be normal for awhile.”

Now, Holly is adjusting to what she calls her “new normal.” Because her treatment leaves her vulnerable to infection, she had to find a temporary home for Ginger the rabbit, and she can’t go to school, so what was to be her ninth grade year at Union, will now be spent studying at home. She’s weaker and can’t stand or walk for long periods, or walk in the grass barefoot, or do her usual kitchen chores. Her formerly active lifestyle has been replaced with what Holly calls being “a couch potato.”

While Holly faces a two- to two-and-a-half year treatment, she tries to follow her mom’s advice. “She told me to make the best of it every day, and I have ever since. Even on the days when I just feel like giving up, I don’t.”

Dr. Wendy Bourland, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist with The Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis, is Holly’s doctor. Besides being is a busy physician, she is the mom of two young children. But for the second year in a row, she is adding one more activity to an already full life. She is chairing the Tulsa CureSearch Walk 2012, which will be Sat., Sept. 29 at Oral Roberts University.

Dr. Bourland said that she wanted to bring the CureSearch Walk to Tulsa, not only because it funds important research to help find a cure for children like Holly, but also because it gives current and former patients and their families a chance to celebrate success, and to remember those who lost the fight.

“The walk is healing for both the families and the staff,” Dr. Bourland said. “We see these kids once or twice a week. They’re our precious children. We’re family, not just healthcare providers.”

Children’s cancer research is different from adult cancer research because there is a smaller number of children than adults with cancer in the United States.

Because of the small pool, “children’s cancers are 90 percent treated on clinical trials,” she said. “The only way to improve current cure rates for children is to find what works. Most children’s cancer research is done through the Children’s Oncology Group (COG).”

“The more research we do,” Dr. Bourland said, “the more cures we can find. I love my job, but I’d love to be put out of it. I’d love to promise every child 100 percent guarantee of a cure.”

Because the number of children with cancer is statistically small, essentially everyone is part of the national research, Dr. Bourland explained. That means even “small” populations, such as those treated at the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis, are being given the same treatment as children in more populated areas of the country.

“Saint Francis Warren Clinic Pediatrics is one of 200 clinics in the country which can offer treatment,” Dr. Bourland said. “And we use phase three treatment, which means that the study has gone through two previous levels of trials and the treatment has been shown to be beneficial. Parents know their children are on a nationally standardized trial, so you have expert eyes watching.”

One hundred percent of the money raised from the CureSearch Walks is invested in the collaborative research efforts of the COG, which treats 90 percent of children with cancer in the United States. Because of its work, COG has improved the cure rate for children’s cancer to 78 percent, when just 40 years ago, children’s cancer was virtually incurable.

Dr. Bourland said that approximately 65 children in Tulsa each year are diagnosed with cancer. “Every five days, a parent in northeastern Oklahoma has to hear that their child has cancer,” she said. “By bringing the CureSearch Walk to Tulsa, we can raise awareness. Tulsa needs to know that we have a lot of kids diagnosed.”

And there is no predicting who that next child will be. As Holly said, “Even if you’re very healthy like I started out, it could still happen to you.”

For those who may be facing a difficult and long illness, Holly has this advice: “Never give up. Always fight through it, and keep a smile on your face!”

Categories: Health, Health (Departments), Teens