Ten years ago, Krissy and Rob Pitts of Free Union, Virginia, got devastating news. The earaches and fevers plaguing Anna — their youngest daughter, not yet 2 years old — turned out to be the most common cancer of childhood — acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Completely blindsided, they entered a whole new world of treatment and uncertainty. They watched their toddler spend 2½ years in chemotherapy. It wasn't a given. But today, Krissy and Rob have a healthy 12-year-old childhood cancer survivor.
Reflecting back, the couple has words of wisdom for parents just starting on the childhood cancer journey. First, their backstory.
When Krissy & Rob Became Parents of a Cancer Fighter
In 2011, their Anna was a fun-loving toddler who loved to dance. But then, for seemingly no reason, she stopped walking. In September that year, Anna became one of some 3,000 children in the U.S. to be diagnosed with ALL. Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells and typically strikes in the toddler years to age 5.
The silver lining? Anna’s type of cancer has the highest cure rate. “This type of leukemia is one of the great success stories of pediatric oncology over the past 30 years,” says Brian Belyea, MD, UVA Children’s pediatric oncologist. “When I was Anna’s age, the survival rate was 60%. Today, the survival rate for what she had is 90%.”
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And the last decade has seen another breakthrough: “In the 10 years since we treated Anna for leukemia,” Belyea says, “we have new drugs for patients who don’t respond to initial treatment and have relapsed disease. This gives even more children a chance to become cancer survivors.”
From Toddler Leukemia Fighter to Tween Competitive Gymnast
Belyea remembers meeting Anna at 18 months old — the youngest of his patients. “She was so courageous,” he shares. “The treatment was arduous. It made her sick. But there she was, playing and being the social butterfly of the hospital unit.” Anna was a “rapid responder.” She had an initial 12-day overnight hospital stay. Within 7 days, her cancer was gone. More years of outpatient therapy “made sure we killed every last leukemia cell,” Belyea says. The success has continued. Anna’s showed no signs of leukemia since.
Today, Anna is a healthy 6th grader and childhood cancer survivor. She still enjoys dancing. On a competitive gymnastics team, Anna competes at the state level. She likes going to UVA sporting events and spending time with family and friends. “She’s lucky to be able to do everything that a normal 12-year-old can do,” mom Krissy shares.
Just Starting on the Childhood Cancer Journey? What to Know
As parents of a child cancer survivor, Krissy and Rob share what they learned.
What’s something you wish you had known at the beginning?
Three things stand out:
- I remember someone telling us not to let our highs get “too high” or our lows get “too low.” The childhood cancer journey is certainly full of ups and downs. You are going to have days tougher than you have ever imagined. And other days when you cry with happiness. Whatever happens, don’t stop moving.
- Another key piece of advice? Maintain as much normalcy as possible. Little things — like playdates or family dinners that were once taken for granted — can quickly raise everyone’s spirits and brighten a day.
- When family and friends offer to help, take them up on it! You’ll look back and be blown away by the outpouring of support shown during the journey. It’s something you’ll never forget.
You mentioned Anna doesn’t remember much about her cancer treatment. But does she have any lasting impressions?
Anna doesn’t remember much about the treatment itself. But she remembers the friendships she made along the way. She’ll never forget the UVA Children's doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who became such a big part of her life during those years. She always looks forward to seeing everyone at clinic appointments and UVA fundraising events.
She does remember painting at preschool in the hospital and riding the wagon in the halls. I vividly remember Anna in the red wagon with big sister Grace pulling her. And me or Rob pushing her IV pole. It's an image that will never escape me. Grace came every day to see her sister in the hospital. The bond the two of them shared was very special.
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Have you put this chapter behind you? Or do you always worry about cancer coming back? The damage caused by treatment on her growing body?
There will always be a certain level of anxiety that stays with you. Hopefully the anxiety decreases over time.
We do worry about the long-term effects caused by treatment. The team at the survivorship clinic does a great job of keeping us informed about the things we need to watch for. So far, Anna has been very lucky. She hasn’t experienced any of the long-term effects.
Do you stay in touch with other families who faced childhood cancer? Does that kind of support help?
We do stay in touch with a lot of families that we’ve crossed paths with along the way. There’s a special bond between childhood cancer families that’s tough to describe. Local support groups give you that unique ability to talk with others who’ve experienced the same thing you are going through. It’s incredibly important to have that type of support, especially early in the journey.
Do you help spread the word about childhood cancer, in hopes to direct more research funding?
We try to be very active in fundraising for childhood cancer research. There’s a critical need for newer, less-toxic childhood cancer treatments. Funding research and clinical trials is key to making it all happen.
We’ve told Anna’s story many times at local fundraising events and even had the opportunity to speak at a couple of national events. It’s a good feeling to be involved with organizations that strive to put an end to childhood cancer. I look forward to the day when there is a cure! Together we are fighting for the future every child deserves and every parent dreams of.
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What were the biggest things the UVA Children’s care team did that made a difference for your family?
The UVA Children's care team was nothing short of amazing. They do what they do for all the right reasons! From the moment we walked in, we received nothing but the best care. The doctors, nurses, and hospital staff made us feel like family.
When a 2-year-old looks forward to an oncology appointment, I think it's safe to say that the team is doing something very right! Anna would look forward to the days that she needed to go to clinic. We were fully expecting a fight at some point when she realized where we were heading. That didn't happen.
We think Anna's desire to see her doctors and nurses outweighed those other things. We will never forget how the UVA staff made our family feel and our everlasting friendship with so many of them.