Diana Chu and Jonathan Jan took their 16-month-old daughter Makayla to the doctor in late February after she spent the night vomiting. Once there, they had the doctor check out a couple bumps on Makayla's head and cheek.
"She fell down the stairs in January, so we assumed the bump was from that," Chu says, "But six weeks later it was still there, along with another bump that popped up on her cheek."
The Devastating Diagnosis
An MRI scan revealed those two bumps were actually tumors — the one on her head was the size of a baseball; the one on her cheek was just a little smaller. After that, a full-body scan revealed a softball-sized tumor on Makayla's left kidney and another on her spinal cord. Along with the four tumors, doctors also found cancer in 80 percent of the toddler's bone marrow.
Makayla was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer that typically starts in the adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys. This type of cancer develops from immature nerve cells (neuroblasts), which explains why it's most commonly seen in children under 5. Instead of developing into fully functional nerve cells, those neuroblasts continue to grow and divide uncontrollably — the mainstay of cancer.
The Long Journey Ahead
The treatment for Makayla's cancer would be considered intense for adults, much less a toddler: She'll have to complete six cycles of chemotherapy. After that, doctors will evaluate her tumors — if they're still there, Makayla will need surgery to remove them completely. Following her chemotherapy, scheduled to end in August, Makayla will also need a bone marrow transplant as well as radiation.
When Makayla's not in the hospital undergoing treatment, she's confined to her home, following a strict schedule that includes taking five different medications throughout the day, along with close monitoring of a nephrostomy tube that collects urine from her left kidney.
This level of care doesn't leave much time for anything else — including work for Chu and Jan. They've both taken intermittent unpaid family leave from their jobs, meaning when Jan stays home with Makayla, Chu goes to work, and vice-versa. On the days when Makayla is in the hospital, they both take time off.
To make things a bit more complicated, Chu's also pregnant — the discovery coincided with Makayla's diagnosis — which means she's not able to be around Makayla during and for a few hours following her monthly scans due to radiation. The same goes for Makayla's 3-year-old brother who's too young to be allowed on the hospital's oncology floor.
But the Chu family isn't alone in this fight; both sets of Makayla's grandparents are lending a hand, along with Chu's brother, and Jan's cousin, who started a GoFundMe campaign to help with Makayla's medical bills (as of this writing, it's already reached $58,895 of its $100K goal). Friends and neighbors have been pitching in, too.
"A lot of people have been sending her toys; she gets a few packages each week," Chu says.
A Happy, Hopeful Outlook
Makayla's currently on her second cycle of chemotherapy, and despite her diagnosis and rigorous treatment schedule, she still acts like any other happy, curious 18-month-old.
"She loves to cook for us in her play kitchen and dance to the 'Miles from Tomorrow Land' theme song," Chu says. But being home with her brother is what makes her happiest. "She's constantly playing with her brother; whatever he does, she wants to do."
Her sunny disposition comes from Chu and Jan, who focus on staying positive for Makayla and her brother.
"She stays happy because we stay happy," Chu says. "We try to act like everything is OK because we don't want her to be scared. We do our best to stay comfortable so she'll feel comfortable."