At this year’s J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation CHOC Oncology Patient Ball, 20-year-old Eliza — a hobbyist photographer and avid fan of karaoke — dazzles in a red gown while chatting with friends, laughing and indulging in tostilocos, a popular snack from Mexico.
When asked about her favorite part of the night, she answers, “the tostilocos,” with a laugh.
Besides the snacks, Eliza explains that the CHOC Oncology Patient Ball, “is a magical night, and something you don’t want to miss out on. It helps you forget about the hard stuff and focus on having fun. It’s a place where you belong.”
Thanks to expert care from the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC, Eliza celebrated something extra special at this year’s ball — being cancer-free.
Una Buena Noche, the 2023 J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation CHOC Oncology Patient Ball
Themed “Una Buena Noche,” the annual ball featured Folklorico dancers, plenty of snacks, a mariachi band, dancing, scholarship giveaways, raffles and more.
The ball serves as the pinnacle of celebration among many other events arranged throughout the year by Richard C. and Virginia A. Hunsaker Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology (AYA) Child Life Program to support teens and young adults with cancer.
The ball is a time for current patients, survivors and siblings to connect, unwind and celebrate. For many, it’s a chance for them to attend an important life event that they may have missed out on due to cancer treatment.
CHOC as second home, staff as family
The theme of each year’s ball is typically kept a surprise for the guests, explains Kara Noskoff, AYA Child Life program coordinator. But this year, she made an exception.
While Kara was spending time with Eliza during her inpatient stay at CHOC Hospital in Orange, Eliza offhandedly suggested a fiesta theme for the ball. Kara noticed Eliza’s face light up when she talked about her ideas, so she ran with them. Eliza helped plan the ball’s décor, music, and of course, food.
“It was really cool that Kara brought me into the planning,” says Eliza. “She allowed me to be part of it.”
Being involved with the ball was especially meaningful to Eliza because, over the last eight years, CHOC has become like her second home.
12-year-old Eliza first came to CHOC in 2015 with back pain. She had a complete blood count (CBC) lab done along with a Computed Tomography (CT) Scan. Soon after, Eliza remembers what felt like 10 doctors rushing into her room, explaining that her bone marrow was lit up on the scan and her CBC was abnormal.
Eliza was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of childhood cancer. It affects the bone marrow and white blood cells — which explains why the CT scan discovered hot spots in Eliza’s bone marrow.
Over the next three and a half years, Eliza would be in and out of CHOC Hospital receiving treatment under the care of her primary oncologist Dr. Van Huynh before being declared cancer-free. She continued to follow up with at the Cancer Institute and resumed her normal life.
Three years later in 2021, Eliza relapsed.
Innovative cancer treatments from CHOC
Dr. Huynh offered Eliza treatment with Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy – an innovative immunotherapy treatment for patients with relapsed ALL.
“With CAR T-cell therapy, we are able to harness the patient’s own immune system to potentially cure their leukemia,” says Dr. Huynh, Director of CHOC’s Leukemia Program and CAR T-Cell Therapy Program.
The success rate with CAR T-cell therapy is high, however, relapses can still occur – an outcome that CHOC is trying to overcome with their new research.
After Eliza received her CAR T-cell therapy, Dr. Huynh monitored Eliza closely for signs of early relapse.
“We use precise methods that can detect miniscule amounts of leukemia cells before true relapse occurs, called next-generation sequencing (NGS), in our patients after they receive CAR T-cell therapy,” explains Dr. Huynh. “This allows us to intervene before overt relapse occurs and it’s harder to treat.”
Eliza’s CAR T-cell treatment went well, and she was in remission for four months when the NGS test detected a small amount of leukemia (early relapse).
In 2022, the CHOC team decided that before true relapse occurred, Eliza should receive a bone marrow transplant to replace her unhealthy blood-forming cells with healthy ones.
Dr. Rishikesh Chavan, oncologist and medical director of the Stem Cell Transplant and Cellular Therapies Program — along with a team of dedicated nurses and bone marrow transplant coordinators Monika Benson, Jane Thom and Danielle Mucker — walked Eliza through the transplant process which she describes as, “A roller coaster of emotions mixed with nausea.”
“The transplant process is full of highs and lows,” explains Dr. Chavan. “But Eliza took it in stride with courage and a great sense of humor.”
The roller coaster was worth it; following her transplant, Eliza was declared cancer-free.
“I consider the day that someone receives a transplant as the first day of their new life,” says Dr. Chavan.
Immediately, Eliza made the most of her new life.
Just three months following her transplant, Eliza was back to working out at the gym. She also got a job working at a retail clothing store.
“Having known Eliza and her family since she was 12 years old, I have seen her endure so much through her treatment journey,” says Dr. Huynh. “I had the privilege to watch her grow up in front of our eyes. She embodies a maturity and strength that we all admire.”
“Eliza and her family are exceptional,” says Dr. Chavan. “It’s because of patients and families like them that I feel thankful to come to work every day.”
A few months after Eliza’s treatment, Dr. Chavan was surprised to run into her one evening at CHOC Hospital in Orange. Turns out, Eliza also jumped right into giving back to CHOC.
‘I love seeing their smiles’
When there is a patient’s birthday party or other event at the Cancer Institute, Eliza joins in to celebrate. Every other Wednesday, Eliza and her mom volunteer with the Junior Foundation, a local non-profit, to serve dinner to families with long hospital stays.
“My favorite part is being able to see the kids get out of their rooms and have some fun,” says Eliza. “I love seeing their smiles.”
Throughout her cancer journey, Eliza has demonstrated resounding strength, peace and positivity.
“Eliza not only has grit, but she has this beautiful sense of altruism and always wants to give back,” says Dr. Huynh. “I love her and her mother for that.”
The staff at CHOC — as well as the other patients she has become friends with — have been there for her every step of the way. She lovingly deemed them her “therapists” throughout her treatment journey.
In turn, Eliza encourages other teens to get involved with the AYA oncology program. She explains that it is a group of teens that get together to have fun at events like paint nights, movie nights or larger events like the ball. These events serve as opportunities for teens to meet others who know exactly what they are going through.
“AYA helps me feel normal when I feel a little weird in the outside world,” says Eliza. “You don’t have to worry if you have hair or not. You just belong.”
In addition to volunteering at CHOC and being involved in the AYA oncology program, Eliza is also passionate about raising awareness for childhood cancer.
Two years ago, in honor of September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Eliza worked with her high school to allow her varsity volleyball team to wear matching cancer awareness shirts during school.
She got the go-ahead, but then more and more groups at school wanted to participate. First, it was the JV volleyball team, then the freshmen team, then the leadership group and other staff and students.
She ended up selling over 200 shirts, with the proceeds being donated to cancer research.
Eliza is proud to still see people wearing the shirts today.
To other kids with cancer, Eliza encourages, “It’s hard now, but later you will be able to look back and see how far you’ve come.” She also reminds other kids to make sure to take their medications even when it is hard. “It’s worth it in the end,” she adds.
Even throughout her difficult cancer odyssey, Eliza summarizes her experience at CHOC as “amazing.”
“If I were to say something to all the nurses, doctors, child life specialists and other patients I’ve met,” says Eliza. “It would be ‘Thank you very much. You all have saved my life in one way or another.’”
Through her encouragement, advocacy, volunteering and friendships, Eliza is determined to continue making the most of her new life.
Inspired by words from her favorite bible verse, “to always pray and never give up,” she continues to enjoy each day — whether that means volunteering, photographing a sports event, hanging out with friends or belting out her go-to karaoke song: “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood.
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Learn more about the Hyundai Cancer Center at CHOC
CHOC Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2023-24 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the cancer specialty.