For months, Sarita Moreno was falling asleep in class, getting dizzy when climbing stairs and almost fainting in marching band practice.
The teenager was also having headaches, nausea and feeling weak. Moreno was initially told she had a common cold or the flu. A few months later, on New Year’s Eve 2014, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). She was 15.
ALL is the most common childhood cancer and occurs when a bone marrow cell, specifically a white blood cell, develops errors in its DNA, according to the Mayo Clinic. Without enough normal white blood cells, the body has a harder time fighting infections.
Leukemia can be cured in 85 percent of children with chemotherapy, said Dr. Matteo Trucco, director of Phase 1 Pediatric Clinical Research Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“We’ve gotten smarter with distinguishing different kinds of leukemia,” Trucco said. “Such as those patients with a higher risk for relapse or those who are low risk and need less therapy.”
Immunotherapy has developed as a treatment by strengthening the immune system. A clinical study on Car T-cell therapy, a developing immunotherapy treatment, began about a month ago at Sylvester, Trucco said.
White blood cells, specifically T cells, are extracted from the patient, sent to an outside lab where they are engineered before being re-injected into the patient.
“It is like attaching heat-seeking missiles to white blood cells, which are then trained to identify and kill leukemia cells,” Trucco said.
A second form of immunotherapy uses antibodies to attack specific proteins on leukemia cells, Trucco said. Both immunotherapy treatments are used for patients who have experienced a leukemia relapse.
To help the child and family get through this, cancer centers provide support teams.
Baptist Health South Florida’s pediatric oncology support team includes a social worker, child-life specialist, pastoral care, and psychological specialist as well as medical staff.
“It is a shock to the child and the family,” said Dr. Doured Daghistani, pediatric oncologist at the Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Hospital. “We lay out a groundwork for support to treat and cure cancer and offer ancillary support services.
“Cancer in a sibling can develop anxiety in a healthy sibling that they can lose their brother or sister,” Daghistani said. “Sometimes families can’t bring themselves to tell siblings about a sick child and a psychologist will step in.”
Miami Cancer Institute is affiliated with the nonprofit Children’s Cancer Caring Center, which helps families pay medical costs. The center also offers Fiesta Camp, a one-week summer program for kids with cancer.
Moreno found music therapy helpful while she was receiving chemotherapy at Broward Health.
Salah Foundation Children’s Hospital at Broward Health’s Child Life program offers pet-assisted therapy and music, humor and art therapies to help overcome anxiety, reduce stress, as well as stimulate the mind and body.
“It helped me cope with my feelings and stress during a life-changing moment,” Moreno said. “Listening to music and talking with someone helped to distract my mind and focus on something better during a horrible time.”
Moreno has been in remission since February 2015 but remained out of high school for a year during her recovery. Now, she sees a physician only for regular checkups. She plays the ukulele, an instrument she learned to play after beginning music therapy.
And she can now go to a concert to watch her favorite band, Twenty One Pilots.
“So many things I can do now,” said Moreno. “It makes me happy.”
Moreno, 18, was recognized as the Girl of the Year for her work as an ambassador for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, through which she spoke at high schools and civic organizations about being a survivor of leukemia.
She recently graduated from Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs and will attend Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in the fall. She received a full-tuition academic grant and plans to study nursing.
“I always had a desire to help people but didn’t know how,” Moreno said. “I thought I would help through music because I had a love for it. After my treatment, it made me realize nursing would be a conduit to help others during a difficult time.”