Perserving Through a Diagnosis
- Ella Cassedy, 15, was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), an aggressive type of blood cancer, after experiencing pain in her lower lip and jaw.
- She went on to receive chemotherapy, injections, infusions, and surgery, and even worked on her building back her muscle, to make the cheerleading team at her school.
- T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) affects a type of white blood cell known as T lymphocytes, which is different from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) that usually affects B lymphocytes.
- Treatment advances in recent decades have led to 85% of children with cancer now surviving five years or more, according to the American Cancer Society. This is up from 58% from the mid-1970s.
- Pediatric cancer is still an incredibly hard journey for a child and their amily to go through. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, one caregiver/mother of a cancer survivor found therapy to be a great way to process the experience.
After noticing an unusual bump had formed on her gums in December 2021, Cassedy was taken to the Dental College of Georgia at AU to get the growth biopsied. Her family learned it was T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), an aggressive form of blood cancer.Read More
“So a nurse at the children’s hospital spoke to me and said, ‘Mrs. Cassedy, the dream time is over. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve gotta battle this and you gotta keep up with what’s going on with her because people are human, mistakes can be made, and you’ve gotta be her advocate,” she continued.
Cassedy — who has since undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy, injections, infusions, and surgery—admitted that the treatment process was difficult, but it didn’t stop her from pursuing her goal of becoming a Harlem High School cheerleader.
She went from being unable to walk or move her arms, to rebuilding her muscles in physical therapy and making the team.
Now, her dad is praising her for maintaining such strength throughout her cancer battle, something he says “helped her mom and I get through everything.”
Not only has she impressed her family and those by her side throughout treatment, but Cassedy has also received a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Student Visionary of the Year nomination.
Cassedy, who has approximately one year and six months left of her treatment, explained, “You get a team together and you just really go out and fundraise and just spread the message about what it’s for. It’s a seven-week campaign, and at the end of it there’s a bid gala that I’ll speak at and tell my story.”
As she looks forward to the LLS Student Visionary of the Year Gala, set to take place next month, Cassedy said, “There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Just persevere through it, because even though it’s hard, and it will be hard, it will get better.”
What Is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a blood cancer that develops when the body produces large quantities of abnormal white blood cells. These cells prevent the bone marrow from producing any other type of cell including, red blood cells and platelets.
“One cell got really selfish and decided that it needed to take up all the resources of everybody else, and, in doing so, took up space and energy from the rest of the body,” Dr. Nina Shah, a hematologist at University of California San Francisco, explained.
There are four basic categories doctors use to identify the different types of this blood cancer:
- Acute leukemia grows very quickly.
- Chronic leukemia grows more slowly, over several years.
- Lymphoid leukemia grows from lymphoid cells, which produce antibodies and protect against viruses.
- Myeloid leukemia grows from myeloid cells, which is the body’s first defense for bacteria.
What Is A Blood Cancer? How Is It Different?
In a more general sense, blood cancer means that your bone marrow is not functioning properly.
“And when your bone marrow doesn’t function correctly, it means that you can have something happen to you like anemia,” she said. “Or you can have low platelets, which makes it possible for you to bleed easily. Or your immune system is not functioning correctly.”
Symptoms of leukemia can vary depending on the type of leukemia and can present as seemingly benign. Common signs and symptoms of the disease include:
- Fever or chills
- Persistent fatigue, weakness
- Frequent or severe infections
- Losing weight without trying
- Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
- Easy bleeding or bruising
- Recurrent nosebleeds
- Tiny red spots in your skin (petechiae)
- Excessive sweating, especially at night
- Bone pain or tenderness
These signs and symptoms are not exclusive to leukemia, but if you notice them or any other changes to your health, you should see a doctor promptly.
All About T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
According to LeukaemiaCare.org, T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) is “a type of acute leukemia meaning that it is aggressive and progresses quickly,” which affects the lymphoid-cell-producing stem cells.
The cancer affects a type of white blood cell known as T lymphocytes, which is different from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) that usually affects B lymphocytes.
In general, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow, but there’s so much more to know about the disease.
Dr. Olalekan Oluwole, a hematologist with Vanderbilt University Medical Center, previously sat down with SurvivorNet to talk about ALL, how it affects the body and the type of treatments that work to fight it.
“ALL is a type of cancer that is very aggressive,” Dr. Oluwole told SurvivorNet. “It grows very fast. Within a few weeks, a few months, the person will start to feel very sick. And that’s why we will have to give it an equally aggressive type of treatment to break that cycle.”
He says many times the leukemia is rested in the bone marrow, and because it is an abnormal growth, it just keeps dividing.
What Is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL)?
“It doesn’t follow rules, and it doesn’t stop,” he told SurvivorNet. “Not only that, because this is part of the immune system, the immune system is sorta like the police of the body. So those abnormal cells that have now become cancer, they have the ability to go to many places. They go into the blood, and they often go into the tissue or the lining around the brain.”
“By the time somebody comes to us and they have ALL we already assume that it has gone everywhere in the body, and we have to treat them like that,” Dr. Oluwole says.
He says many patients present with fever or infections because the bone marrow has “failed in its ability to make other types of blood cells.”
Understanding Childhood Cancer
Treatment advances in recent decades have led to 85 percent of children with cancer now surviving five years or more, according to the American Cancer Society. This is up from 58 percent from the mid-1970s.
But according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, more than 95 percent of childhood cancer survivors have significant health-related issues because of the current treatment options, and only 4 percent of the billions of dollars spent each year on cancer research and treatments are directed towards treating childhood cancer in the United States. Since 1980, fewer than 10 drugs have been developed for use in children with cancer while hundreds of drugs have been created exclusively for adults.
Dr. Elizabeth Raetz, director of pediatric hematology and oncology at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, reminded us in a previous interview that there is still reason for hope.
“There are also targeted treatments and different immunotherapies that have been studied in adults and have now moved into clinical trials for children and there has been a great deal of excitement in the community about that,” Dr. Raetz told SurvivorNet.
Caring for a Child with Cancer
Navigating a child’s cancer diagnosis can be incredibly tricky – something Jayne Wexler knows all too well.
She had to fill the roles of parent and cancer caregiver when her son, Justice, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Thankfully, he has since recovered.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Wexler explained how she managed to be a mother and a caregiver all at once.
“I Try To Stay Strong, But Sometimes You Need To Cry”: Playing The Role of Cancer Caregiver and Mom
“Being a caregiver is a huge job,” Wexler said. “Fortunately, my husband and family were very supportive … it’s really hard to see your child go through this. If it could be me, I would take it in a second. You just go on auto-pilot and you just do what you have to do.”
But that doesn’t mean it was always easy. Wexler admitted that as a parent caring for a child with the disease, you don’t have a lot of time to sit down and deal with your own emotions.
“You don’t have that much time for yourself,” Wexler said. “I try to stay strong, but then sometimes you just want to go and cry, and you need to cry… it’s good to cry.”
RELATED: The Impact of a Childhood Cancer Diagnosis on the Whole Family Jayne Wexler Shares Her Story
The survival rate for children with cancer has improved over the past few decades, but pediatric cancer is still an incredibly hard thing for a family to go through. In her own caregiving experience, Wexler found therapy to be a great way to process everything happening to her family.
Regardless of whether it’s therapy or participating in your favorite activities or something entirely different, it’s important to find ways to also take care of yourself as you’re taking care of your child.
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff
Learn more about SurvivorNet's rigorous medical review process.