A parent's worst nightmare: When a fever turns out to be cancer

A parent's worst nightmare: When a fever turns out to be cancer

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Body aches, fever, vomiting—those were the flu-like symptoms that prompted Branda Bird to drive her 17-year-old son to the emergency room in South Jordan.

"I thought they might just give him fluids and we would be back home that night," she said.

But for Bird, an employee at University of Utah Hospital, one thing just didn't add up: nose bleeds.

"I couldn't attribute that to the flu," she recalled.

For a week, she told her son to power through his illness and to stop being dramatic. As more time passed and his sickness continued, she felt increasingly uneasy. The day she drove her son to the ER, she waited nervously as staff proceeded with routine tests. The results of a blood test would soon change everything.

A first blood test showed that Bird's son, JT, had an abnormally low blood count. A second test confirmed the teenager's white blood cell count was below average. That's when Bird and the emergency department staff knew JT didn't have the flu, but something more severe.

Soon after the visit to the ER, JT was airlifted by AirMed to Primary Children's Hospital. The medical staff gave Bird's son an IV in both arms. A few hours later, the family was moved to a consultation room.

"Looking back, now I realize they were getting ready to give us bad news," said Bird. A few minutes later, the oncologist confirmed JT had leukemia. "Big crocodile tears began to come out of my son's eyes," she said.

JT was diagnosed with the most common childhood leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Leukemia in children and teens accounts for almost one out of three cancers. On paper, some leukemia symptoms appear similar to influenza: fatigue, fever, bone pain, and headaches. But in some types of leukemia patients are asymptomatic said Michael Deininger, M.D., Ph.D., division of hematology and hematologic malignancies at Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

Often a red flag isn't raised until blood counts are performed during an annual check-up or prior to a surgery. But it's important to contact a doctor about any symptoms that have developed. Even if it isn't the flu or leukemia, these symptoms can also be attributed to other causes.

Deininger noted if a person is bruising easily, suffering from frequent or severe infections and has unexplained weight loss, he or she should pick up the phone and call a medical provider.

"You are your biggest advocate," he said. "If you notice something abnormal, don't be afraid to ask questions."

Deininger said the prognosis for teenagers diagnosed with leukemia is better than that of adults in some cases. He also added long-term survival prospects depend on the genetic subtype and other factors.

Physicians and researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute are pioneering how cancer is treated and giving patients a better survival rate by digging into those genetic makeups that can lead researchers to solving the cancer mystery.

Dedicated to the study of cancer and treating pediatric patients battling the disease, earlier this year Huntsman Cancer Institute broke ground on the new Primary Children's and Families Cancer Research Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute. The 220,000-square-foot expansion will focus on the study of pediatric cancers, advance risk assessment and prevention.

JT began chemotherapy just days after his diagnosis. "The first part of chemo was intense," said Bird. "We're now in the second phase and hoping to get the all clear from doctors."

Depending on the type of leukemia a patient is diagnosed with, treatment for leukemia depends on many factors. A physician determines treatment options based on age and overall health, the type of leukemia, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. Common treatments to fight leukemia include chemotherapy, targeted, biological and radiation therapy.

With early detection leukemia and other cancers are treatable. Even though she drove her son to the hospital with the flu in mind, Bird said today she is grateful her mother's intuition led her to the emergency room that night.

"You just never know," she said.

With the support of his family and medical staff, JT continues to battle leukemia. Bird said the family's goal is to one day hear four words from their oncologist: No evidence of disease.

Check out other Ask an Expert articles here.

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Marissa Villaseñor for University of Utah Health Care


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