A team approach to tackling a 4-year-old’s leukemia

A mom’s view of successful leukemia treatment.

For many families, Christmas is a time for treasured memories. For the Walsh family, the Christmas of 2018 will always be unforgettable, but not for the usual reasons. That was when 4-year-old Seth was diagnosed with leukemia.

Michelle Walsh said the news of Seth’s cancer threw the entire family into shock.

“It all happened so quickly,” she said.

That Christmas Eve, Michelle and her husband, Trevor, had been out with Seth and his two brothers, ages 6 and 8. When they got home Seth didn’t feel well. He had a rash on his stomach, but seemed better the next day. The day after Christmas, however, he was worse, and the rash had spread up his neck.

Thinking Seth might have strep throat, Michelle got an appointment with his pediatrician that day. Right away, the doctor told her this was no normal rash. Repeated tests showed Seth’s white blood cell count was extremely high.

The doctor called an ambulance to take Seth immediately to Norton Children’s Hospital. That’s when he told Michelle that Seth had leukemia.

“My head was spinning,” she said.

Seth began chemotherapy on Dec. 28. His first hospital stay lasted 12 days.

Since then Seth has been hospitalized several times. He also gets outpatient therapy at the Novak Center for Children’s Health.

“He’s amazing, and just goes with the flow through it all,” Michelle said.

Teamwork is key

It takes a team approach to fight pediatric cancer. Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the University of Louisville, brings together leading cancer specialists including oncologists, surgeons, nurses, pharmacists, social workers and behavior specialists.

According to Michelle, Seth is doing well. She credits three things for this.

  • Addison Jo Blair Cancer Center (7 West) staff. Beyond their skill, they pour out incredible compassion. For example, Michelle points to the family’s first meeting with Mustafa Barbour, M.D., hematologist and oncologist with UofL Physicians – Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders.

I was in a panic and he radiated calm,” she said. “He sat and talked with us for over two hours and answered all our questions.”

Then there is oncology patient navigator Frances Price, R.N., whom Michelle calls an angel and invaluable resource.

“I can call her anytime, and she is instantly able to answer any questions,” Michelle said.

  • Child life team.This group of therapists, music therapists and other key staff identifies and addresses medical, psychological and social needs of patients and their families. SibStars, a monthly support group, helps Seth’s brothers understand leukemia and share any concerns they have. 

“This program is super vital,” Michelle said. “It helps explain what I have no words to explain.”

  • Cultivating connections. Through various child life programs, the Walshes have met other families that interact through a parent support group. They share kinship and information on everything from keeping themselves healthy to managing finances. Many of them use social media to keep in touch and provide encouragement.

According to Michelle, when your child has cancer you find yourself in a whole new world. Talking with those further along in the process helps you know what to expect. Talking with those new to it can mean a lot when they’re struggling to understand.

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“For me, it’s a way to pay back what others have done for me,” Michelle said.

The early signs of leukemia

Leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer. Survival rates for this blood and bone marrow cancer continue to improve, thanks to research and better treatments. Leukemia’s warning signs and symptoms can include:

  • Extreme tiredness, fatigue, or weakness
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Chronic fever
  • Bleeding or swollen gums, bruising or nosebleeds
  • Rashes that look like small, dark spots
  • Swelling in the face, arms or lymph nodes
  • Vomiting or trouble eating
  • Weight loss

Talk to your child’s medical care provider about any concerns you notice, especially if they seem to linger or reappear. Many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than leukemia, but as Michelle would tell you: Awareness matters.