Capturing Kate’s Cancer
A Glenside child undergoes lifesaving pediatric surgery at Abington
When Kate Dwyer recently blew out the candles on her birthday cake, a big part of her wish had already come true. She has the rest of her life to celebrate.
Just over a year ago, Kate was a seemingly healthy, multi-tasking girl, involved with friends, lacrosse, basketball, and field hockey at Ancillae-Assumpta Academy. But then she began suffering sudden bouts of nausea and vomiting.
Her mother, Colleen, remembers, “She would be sick for two or three days, then feel fine. On February 9, 2009, she began vomiting again, and her father, Walt, and I decided to bring her to Abington’s Emergency Trauma Center after consulting with her pediatrician.”
Her blood work proved normal, suggesting that the culprit was something other than appendicitis.
Ala Stanford Frey, M.D., director of Pediatric Surgical Services at Abington Memorial Hospital, was immediately called in to consult. Dr. Frey is one of approximately 1,000 practicing pediatric surgeons in the country. She also operates at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.
Ultrasound scans revealed an “intussusception,” where the bowel folds over on itself. “The telescoping of the bowel and Kate’s symptoms suggested an obstruction” Dr. Frey explains. “I advised Kate’s parents that she would need surgery to diagnose and alleviate the blockage, and listed possible causes.”
Kate underwent surgery early that evening. “While a benign or malignant tumor is a risk, more likely causes are ovarian cysts or a congenital diverticulum,” Dr. Frey adds.
“I typically start less invasively, using a camera inserted through a small incision near the umbilicus (navel). In this way, I can remove a cyst or certain other growths laparoscopically. “But through the incision, I felt a hard mass.”
The pediatric surgeon needed to get inside, so she extended the incision to be able to view and remove the growth. So concerning was the mass that Dr. Frey called the director of Pathology, who just happened to be working late. She asked for a “frozen section” of the tissue to be analyzed immediately. Her suspicion was confirmed. It was malignant.
She finished removing the mass and then set about removing lymph nodes from around the intestine for further testing. With a malignancy, especially in a child, cancer staging is everything. It helps oncologists determine the type and amount and duration of chemotherapy and/or radiation for follow up treatment.
After the surgery, Dr. Frey met Kate’s parents with the devastating news: Kate had Burkitt’s lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that occurs in children. Her parents wept with the implications. Dr. Frey, a mom herself, hugged both parents for “a long, long time.”
Colleen Dwyer, a home infusion nurse who works with patients from Abington’s Rosenfeld Cancer Center and other hospitals, had to face the cruelest of ironies: her own child had the disease.
“We never expected anything like this,” she says. “But Dr. Frey was so nice and we were so lucky that she took enough nodes for accurate staging. Even having the pathologist there late was a blessing—we knew that night for the most part what we were up against.”
Kate spent several days recovering in Abington’s inpatient pediatric unit, which provides 24-hour coverage by renowned physicians from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “When I would go in to see her,” Dr. Frey recalls, “she would always be smiling, even with the uncomfortable nasogastric tube (to drain fluids from her stomach).
Dr. Frey arranged to have the girl’s tissue slides and surgical reports sent to Children’ Hospital immediately. As soon as Kate was medically able, she was transferred to CHOP to begin her oncology treatment.
Dr. Frey adds, “I received a call from Kate’s oncologist at CHOP, thanking me for removing enough lymph nodes during her surgery. I knew that it would be far less traumatic for Kate if she didn’t have to undergo unnecessary treatments.”
Fortunately, Burkitt’s lymphoma has a very high cure rate if detected and treated early. Kate underwent months-long chemotherapy. “Even at the worst of times,” Colleen says, “we tried to find something to laugh about. Having had such a difficult experience, she probably won’t worry about the small stuff like other young people might.”
And the big stuff? It’s all good. Kate recently received a clean bill of health from her oncologists at Children’s Hospital.
Now she’s back to being a point guard for summer basketball and looking forward to a Jersey shore vacation with her sister, Claire, and mom and dad.
“To think where we were last year at this time,” Colleen Dwyer says, her voice full of emotion. “We are so grateful to Dr. Frey. She is just amazing.”
It took teamwork, timing, the love and support of her family and friends, and one very tough young girl to make recovery possible. Many happy returns, Kate.