A few days ago, we brought you the childhood cancer story of Hazel, the sweet 5-year-old who loves tea parties, playing dress-up, and who’s fighting neuroblastoma for the second time. Shortly after her family learned her cancer was back, St. Baldrick’s staffer Alison Sutton went to the hospital with Hazel and her mom for her first day back in treatment. Alison tells the story below.
When I met Hazel, she was celebrating two years cancer free. She seemed like a regular 5-year-old kid. Like most kids her age, she loves Frozen and is always ready to have a tea party.
Two weeks later, the reality of childhood cancer struck. Hazel relapsed.
No one was prepared for the news — not Hazel, not her parents, and definitely not me. We had just interviewed Hazel for a video about her beating cancer. She had talked about how excited she was to start kindergarten. She seemed fine.
A week after the biopsy confirmed it was relapsed neuroblastoma, I joined Hazel and her mom, Lauren, for Hazel’s first day of treatment at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA).
This is what it’s like to fight childhood cancer a second time…
8:30 a.m. I show up at CHLA to meet Hazel and Lauren.
Hazel loves dresses. In fact, chances are you won’t see her NOT dressed up, sparkly shoes on with an adorable headband. Her first day back to the hospital was no different.
The three of us head to the radiology wing of the hospital to check in.
The day includes a surgery to insert a double port — an access point under the skin in her chest to deliver medicine into the vein — and chemo through the new port.
But first, we’re taken back into a room for Hazel to get ready for surgery.
She hops on the scale and gets her temperature taken. Then the discussion about IVs starts.
For her surgery, Hazel has to be put under anesthesia.
Lauren asks, “Hazel, do you want the mask or the pokie?”
Normally, Hazel will be the first one to tell you that she hates “pokies,” aka needles. But after a rough experience with a gas mask last time, Hazel makes the decision on her own to get an IV.
“The IV’s better for me! I don’t really like the mask. I’m always going to do the IV.”
Lauren is surprised by this choice, considering Hazel’s usual response to IVs involves a lot of flailing around and screaming.
As the nurses prep her IV, Lauren asks Hazel, “Do you want me to sit behind you and hold your hand?”
Hazel nods her head and Lauren hops up on the bed.
The nurse sticks the needle in Hazel’s hand and Hazel sits there in silence, watching everything.
I ask, “Have you done this before, Hazel?”
“I’ve done this a lot of times.”
The IV is in and she’s one step closer to her double port surgery. But first, it’s time to color.
This is when Hazel starts to get frustrated.
“It’s so hard to color with this,” she says, pointing to the IV. “I want to color now but I can’t.”
The nurses come in to take her back to the radiology room. As soon as they say it’s time to go, Hazel latches on to the table and starts yelling.
“I don’t like my medicine! I hate it!”
Her mom hugs her and promises, “It will be over quickly.”
“It will? I don’t want to do it!”
“You gotta be brave.”
At that moment, I just stood there. Half in shock, half not knowing how I should act.
It’s not a regular 5-year-old meltdown. This is a child, afraid of cancer.
After some time, Hazel lets her mom pick her up to walk her to the radiology room.
As we get closer to the door, Hazel begins to panic again.
With her IV already in place, they are able to give her medicine to calm her down enough for Lauren to bring her into the room.
Lauren comes out looking heartbroken.
We walk back down the hall and head to the café to wait. The surgery would take about an hour, so I ask Lauren to tell me a bit about Hazel’s childhood cancer journey.
Flash back to April 19, 2013, when 2-year-old Hazel was diagnosed with stage 3 high-risk neuroblastoma.
“She wasn’t feeling well and kept saying, ‘Mommy, owies,’ and would point to her stomach and back,” Lauren explains. “She stopped eating and drinking and would fall asleep at the table.”
Hazel’s fever got to 101 and they knew something terrible was happening.
“I called the doctor and said, ‘I don’t know why, but I think this is cancer.’”
They took Hazel to the ER, did an ultrasound, and found a tumor the size of a small melon in her abdomen.
Lauren’s intuition was right. It was childhood cancer.
From there they were transported to CHLA. Hazel had a line placed, a biopsy, and started chemo treatment right away.
A few days later, the biopsy results were back. Hazel’s family was told they would be fighting neuroblastoma.
Chemo helped shrink the tumor and Hazel had surgery in August 2013. Doctors got about 97% of the tumor and treatment continued to take care of the rest. After a stem cell transplant, radiation, and immunotherapy, in April 2014 she had clear scans!
Fast forward to today and Lauren and I are at Hazel’s second first day of cancer treatment.
After about an hour, Hazel comes out of surgery and we head to the recovery room to meet her.
She’s a little cranky at first, like she just woke up from a nap. The nurse goes to remove her IV so we can head to the infusion wing.
As the nurse begins to take off the tape holding down the needle, Hazel yells in pain. “Why didn’t they take this off me while I was asleep?!”
Kicking and moving around, Hazel is not having it. It gets to the point where Lauren has to hold Hazel down in order for the nurse to take out the IV.
Again, I stand there helpless, wondering how Lauren stays so composed — how she’s able to calm her daughter down while going through this cancer nightmare again.
After the IV is out, we’re off to the next stop — the infusion center for Hazel’s first dose of chemo in her newly placed port.
As we’re checking in, Hazel says, “Mom, I’m not going to like the medicine.”
At first I think, This is the first day. How do you know?
Then it hits me. Something Lauren said to me earlier: “This time around, it’s the fear of the known.”
Hazel and her family have already been through this once. She knows what chemo feels like. Lauren remembers what it’s like to see her daughter in the hospital.
They know what to expect, and sometimes that’s scarier than not knowing what you’re in for.
But any anxiety Hazel felt disappears when she sees the playroom right across from her bed. “Check out that play area!” she exclaims.
Play time is cut short by the nurses. It’s time to hook Hazel up to fluids through her port.
We have some down time until chemo, so we decide to have a nail painting party and watch Netflix.
As she gets her nails painted, we chat about school and getting older. Hazel says, “I just want to stay a kid forever. I don’t want to be a grownup.”
Even with so much of her childhood involving cancer, she still just wants to have fun and be a kid.
The day is coming to an end, but this is just the beginning of Hazel’s next childhood cancer journey.
The next day she checks in to a five-day inpatient stay to receive two types of chemo and an immunotherapy drug called Unituxin — a treatment made possible by funding from St. Baldrick’s.
I visit her one of the days and again I’m faced with the reality of childhood cancer.
This time, Hazel isn’t the energetic girl I saw before. Her medicine makes her entire body itch. It causes her pain. And she’s stuck in the hospital for five days, missing out on school.
Once again, I feel helpless. And once again, Lauren seems like supermom, able to keep Hazel calm while knowing there’s not much she can do to take away her pain.
This is my fourth time documenting a day with a child with cancer and by far the most emotional for me.
Every child I’ve met has taught me something. But Hazel showed me something I’d never seen before. She showed me the harsh reality of childhood cancer. And the even harsher reality of a relapse.
Hazel has a long road ahead, but she says, “As long as everyone prays for me, I will kick cancer’s butt!”
Help kids like Hazel get the cures they need. Give today.
Read more on the St. Baldrick’s blog: