Family faces daughter’s cancer diagnosis, finds treatment close to home

October 19, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Kim and Keith Grispo, of Plainfield, remember the moment vividly when they realized something might be wrong with their daughter Hannah, 14.

“The morning after her 5th birthday, Hannah had a fever that lasted for 16 days,” says Kim.

The fever was only the beginning. At 5 years old, Hannah was losing weight and she appeared pale. Her mom said she was napping more, but she had also started a new routine: preschool.

“It was a mystery for our physicians. After numerous appointments with various doctors, we met with pediatric hematologist and oncologist Jennifer McNeer, M.D. (with University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and also on staff at Edward Hospital), who suggested we move forward with a bone marrow biopsy since Hannah’s bloodwork was outside of a healthy range,” Kim says.

Dr. McNeer suggested the family meet with pediatric cancer specialist Charles Rubin, M.D. Within 24 hours of having a biopsy, Hannah was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer that affects white blood cells.

“We were in panic mode,” Keith says. “I asked my wife if I needed to quit my job or if we should all move closer to the city so Hannah could be near her medical team. What would our new normal look like? Would Hannah be able to go to school? Do we have to go to Chicago every day? It was a learning curve.”

Even though she was just 5 years old at the time, Hannah can still recall the moment her parents shared her diagnosis with her and her sister, Hailey, who is now 18.

“My sister and I were watching a cartoon. I remember exactly where in the episode we paused it so our parents could talk to us. My parents told me I was having a sleepover at a hospital. I didn’t even know what cancer was.”

A YouTube video featuring the main character of the children’s series Arthur helped Hannah’s parents explain Hannah’s medical attention to their daughters.

“We didn’t have all of the answers and we didn’t want to overwhelm the girls,” Kim says. “We told them to imagine a garden with beautiful flowers. That garden is your body and the flowers are your body’s cells. Sometimes gardens grow weeds alongside the flowers. We need to pull out those weeds to keep the garden healthy and growing.”

One day later, the family met with Dr. Rubin to work on Hannah’s treatment plan. She would receive two types of chemotherapy: intravenous (IV) chemotherapy and oral chemotherapy.

After an aggressive initial month of treatment, Hannah was in remission, but she still had to receive treatment for the next two years to ensure the cancer was no longer in her body. She went to both Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago and Edward Hospital in Naperville, which offered outpatient cancer treatment closer to home.

“I named each pill I had to take, and I thought that each pill was a soldier in my stomach fighting the cancer,” Hannah says.

Near the end of her treatment, the chemotherapy started to take a toll on her body. “I remember taking my last pill and knowing that pill bottle did not need to be refilled again,” she says.

The convenience of receiving outpatient treatment in Naperville made it easier on Hannah’s family since they didn’t need to travel into the city for many of her appointments. “I was just making friends, and I could leave school early since Edward was so close, instead of not going [to school] at all,” Hannah says.

The support of their community, Hannah’s school, family, friends and the care team at Edward Hospital helped the Grispos cope. “Everyone at Edward Hospital became my second family,” Hannah says.

The team at Edward even helped with life outside of the hospital walls. “I remember being at a block party and a kid told me her mom wouldn’t let her hang out with me because she might get cancer,” Hannah says.

A short time after, Melissa Slattery, CCLS, a certified child life specialist with Edward Hospital, visited Hannah’s school to talk to her and her sister’s classmates about cancer, and clear up any misconceptions.

The Grispo family soon became childhood cancer advocates. Kim, along with the care team at Edward Hospital, started a support group for siblings of children fighting life-threatening illnesses.

“My sister Hailey was able to receive support and stay with me at the Ronald McDonald Family Room when I was in the hospital. I felt more at ease knowing she was close by me,” Hannah says. Watching the animal-assisted therapy parades also brought joy to Hannah’s days, as she collected trading cards of the dogs when they visited her room.

Hannah has continued to receive regular follow-up exams with Dr. McNeer to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned. She is now seven years cancer-free, and two years officially cured.

“I know some people go through treatment with not the best team behind them. I have nothing but great things to say about the team at Edward Hospital. I am very grateful to them.”

Today, Hannah is active in high school sports and has no effects from the cancer treatment she received. She has since made it her goal to help other families cope with cancer and help raise funds for pediatric cancer research.

“Did you know that only 4 percent of money spent on cancer research goes to childhood cancer?” she says. “I am continuing to heal from the process of having cancer, but I want to spread awareness and help other children and their families cope and heal as well.”

Edward Hospital, in collaboration with the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, offers outpatient pediatric cancer and hematology services in Naperville. The program offers families convenient outpatient treatment closer to home, so there’s no need to travel into the city for most of your child’s appointments.

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