Children's Hospital oncology patients form lasting relationships

The Fresno BeeMarch 3, 2014 

Savannah Gomes and Andrew McMillan are Fresno State students who became friends through their battles with cancer.

Three years ago, Gomes was under the watchful eye of the oncology unit at Children's Hospital Central California for cancer of the soft tissue in her left sinus cavity.

She read a friend's Facebook post about McMillan, who was a couple of months into treatment at the hospital for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.

She is from Prather. He is from Big Creek — both mountain communities.

In March 2011, Gomes connected with McMillan, to let him know what to expect with his treatment — and that he was going to make it.

She went on to become a mentor to him, and their friendship continues to this day.

She now is 22. He is 20.

They are an example of how the oncology department at Children's Hospital Central California doesn't just provide the treatment — and send you out the door.

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The hospital seeks to build relationships with patients that last, especially through a Late Effects/Survivorship program.

The oncology unit is offered through the Craycroft Cancer Center, one of the largest pediatric cancer centers on the West Coast.

It is a member of Children's Oncology Group, a research consortium of more than 2,000 physicians in the United States and Canada to ensure children receive the best care.

The unit was established at the hospital more than 30 years ago, and the services have grown.

Today there are nine physicians who care for an average of 128 new patients per year.

The department can diagnose cancer as early as at birth.

Since treatment can result in side effects that develop later in the patient's life, the hospital wants patients to remain with them until age 21. Sometimes longer.

"We follow the kids and look at what's important to help prepare them for the future," says Dr. Faisal Razzaqi, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at the hospital.

He was recognized by hospital staff as Physician of the Year in 2013.

"We want them to have a healthy life. We find joy when they've done something with life."

Razzaqi recently visited with patient Jacob Martinez, 15, of Ceres, who is undergoing final chemotherapy for acute promyelocytic leukemia before he begins maintenance chemo at home.

"We couldn't get any better care," says Tami Martinez, Jacob's mother. "They are angels in disguise."

Jacob has tried to keep a positive attitude.

"It's a bad thing that's happened to me, but I can say I beat it," he says. "It's a good thing to put on my résumé."

The unit wants survivors to continue with them, so they can receive help with audiology, physical therapy and neurology.

Gomes has been approved to remain through age 26. Her picture is on the cover of the current Late Effects/Survivorship program brochure.

She was diagnosed with cancer at age 16. With chemotherapy, there's always hair loss and nausea.

But there were other side effects. She couldn't put on sweaters by herself or cut her own food. She had trouble walking and lost feet flexibility for dancing.

But there was good news.

"The goal was to shrink the tumor," she says. "By the time I finished, the tumor wasn't there."

On Sept. 16, she reached the milestone of being a five-year cancer survivor.

Gomes plans to graduate from Fresno State in May with a degree in psychology, emphasizing behavioral analysis. She also plans to seek her master's in social work and dreams of working at the hospital.

McMillan says he is grateful for Gomes' encouragement at a difficult time.

He was diagnosed at age 17. Treatment caused massive nausea, hair loss and a weight loss of 25 pounds. He also dropped out of debate because he had no immune system.

"I had to carry a walking stick," says McMillan, adding his cancer soon went into remission.

"My doctor said I was so low in red blood cells — and what saved me was living in the mountains because of less oxygen. It made my heart stronger."

Through the Survivorship program, McMillan has talked with a young man going through a similar diagnosis in Missouri, encouraging him.

McMillan, who is majoring in business, says he is interested in information systems — "how they can run better, so a patient's life is better and he doesn't have to think about cancer."

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304 or rorozco@fresnobee.com.

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