How a 4-year-old girl wins cancer battle

By Thuy Quynh   April 9, 2024 | 07:23 pm PT
After having spent 8 months fighting metastatic stage 4 neuroblastoma, Co in the central province of Quang Ngai is making miraculous recovery following a stem cell transplant.

The day the 4-year-old girl was discharged from hospital, her 40 m2 house was once again imbued with laughter.

"Ever since our child received a stem cell transplant, my husband and I have had more hope for a bright future following gruesome days of treatment," Nguyen Thi Tra Nhi, Co's mother, said on March 25.

Co started to lose her appetite in June 2023, showing symptoms of indigestion, nausea, and stomach pain. A doctor gave her medicine for dyspepsia, which did not work. A few days later, lymph nodes appeared on her neck. Doctors at Ho Chi Minh City Children's Hospital discovered that she had neuroblastoma, stage 4, with lymph node metastases, and a poor prognosis.

Neuroblastoma is common among infants and children under 5 years old since it can form before birth. It is a solid tumor that occurs in nerve cells outside the brain, nerve tissue near the spine of the neck, chest, abdomen or pelvis, and usually in the adrenal glands on top of both kidneys. Many of its symptoms derive from pressure caused by the tumor, such as bone pain, breathing difficulty, fever, and anemia.

The cancer is often discovered after it has spread to other parts of the body such as lymph nodes, liver, lungs, bones and bone marrow.

"It felt as if the sky was falling," Nhi recounted learning the news about her child's cancer.

Co was treated at Children's Hospital 2 in Ho Chi Minh City, receiving different treatment methods from surgery, high-dose chemical infusion, to stem cell transplant and radiotherapy. She received chemotherapy every 10 days, a regimen of 9 cycles. The child's skinny arms were covered with bruises from injections. Chemicals caused the girl to lose sleep, appetite, constantly vomit, and her body turned pale.

Doctors advised stem cell transplant as a last resort to save the child's life. Stem cell transplantation would help completely demolish cancer cells, regenerate healthy cells and reduce the risk of recurrence.

However, the cost of a stem cell transplant is quite high, about VND300-400 million (US$12,000-16,000). In addition, staying in isolation rooms is not covered by public health insurance. This form of treatment can only be performed in centers with advanced technical facilities equipped with stem cell harvesting machines, stem cell storage areas, and standard stem cell transplant rooms air filtration systems. The medical team must have training and experience in the field. This was a barrier for low-income families like Co's.

Nhi is a housewife and her husband is the breadwinner of the family, but his job was unstable. They did not have the financial capacity to pay for Co's treatment.

In February 2024, Co was fortunate to receive support from the Sun of Hope program of Hope Foundation to pay for the stem cell transfusion, preventing further metastasizing. The girl underwent transplantation on Feb. 21. After her health indicators stabilized, she was discharged.

Bệnh nhi điều trị tại viện. Ảnh: Nhân vật cung cấp

Co eats a banana while watching a YouTube video on her hospital bed. Photo courtesy of the hospital

Upon coming home, Co appeared more joyful in the company of relatives, but she was still weak, unable to walk and had to endure body aches and frequent vomiting. Many nights the girl cried because of stomach pain and headaches.

On March 20, one month after the stem cell transplant, Co felt stronger and could even frolic with her friends. Test results showed that the child's body was clear of malignant cells. She will receive radiotherapy when her health stabilizes.

According to doctors, stem cell transplantation is usually the most difficult stage during treatment for pediatric patients. They need to undergo strong chemical infusions and have to be placed in special isolation rooms. Family members must ensure sterility to avoid exposure to infection from the outside. Due to side effects such as increased fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhea, malnutrition, and weight loss, the children need extra nutrition.

Looking back on the past 8 months, Nhi said "it was like a dream." Having witnessed many children suffering from serious illnesses, she considered her family extremely fortunate.

With the goal of supporting pediatric cancer patients, Hope Foundation, in collaboration with Mr. Sun, launched The Sun of Hope program. Every contribution from the community means another ray of light sent to the future generations of the country.

Click here for further information on the program.

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