Pediatric Cancer at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

Alex's Place Provides Comfort and a Team Approach to Care

Dr. Matteo Trucco is a pediatric oncologist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth, University of Miami Health System. If you have further questions about the treatment of pediatric cancers at Sylvester, or to schedule an appointment, call 305-243-1000.

Deonna Bridges was just 16 years old when doctors diagnosed her with rhabdomyosarcoma, a pediatric cancer of the muscle tissue that was located in Deonna's uterus. Several months prior, she had been experiencing prolonged periods of bleeding that her mother believed were related to her menstrual cycle. A gynecologist referred Deonna and her family to Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"It was overwhelming at first," Deonna says of her cancer diagnosis.

But she drew inspiration from her mother, a breast cancer survivor who was also treated at Sylvester. Dr. Matteo Trucco, a pediatric oncologist at Sylvester, specializes in bone and muscle tumors (sarcomas) in children.

Together with a team of colleagues, Dr. Trucco created a treatment plan for Deonna that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Treating cancers in children requires a different approach than in adults, as what drives pediatric cancers is often different, and children are often able to tolerate stronger doses of chemotherapy and handle the toxic effects of the treatment better than people who have lived longer and experienced the cellular wear and tear that comes with aging, says Dr. Trucco.

The team at Sylvester’s pediatric oncology clinic, called "Alex's Place" after philanthropist Alexander Daly, are experts in the treatment of sarcomas. In addition to world-renowned cancer care, Alex's Place provides a comforting environment designed to meet the needs of children and their families.

"They're going through painful procedures and taking medicine with a lot of side effects. You want to make an environment that's comfortable for them, where they can forget for a second everything they're going through," says Dr. Trucco.

Alex's place includes a serene rock garden and an indoor play area in addition to a closet filled with games and gadgets that have a calming effect on children during appointments that are often anxiety-filled and lengthy. Deonna, for example, was drawn to the virtual reality goggles. She often used the headset as a distraction during her weekly chemotherapy infusions.

In addition to their medical team, an onsite child life specialist and social worker help the children and their families navigate what can be a stressful time by connecting them to financial resources, providing emotional support, and assisting in planning treatments around commutes and work schedules.

Treating children with cancer also requires special consideration of issues related to fertility, as everything the doctors do to combat the cancer has a potentially detrimental effect on the patient's future ability to have children, says Dr. Trucco.

Deonna's team of physicians took multiple steps to protect her ability to one day have kids. Surgeons moved her ovaries out of the way to avoid exposure to radiation. The radiation oncology team planned the radiation treatment to maximize the dose on the tumor and minimize the dose to the uterus. Chemotherapy doses were tailored along the way her tumor responded to give her as little as possible without compromising effectiveness. In addition, Deonna took medication to cease ovulation during treatment to further protect her eggs.

"I was nervous at first, but then I thought, 'No, I can do this,'" says Deonna. "It's important because it's something I want to do some day -- have children of my own." 

In April 2018, after almost a year of treatment, Deonna's scans showed no signs of cancer.

"Her chances are really good for all of this to be a bad memory," says Dr. Trucco.

For now, Deonna is ready to resume life as a regular teenager. After being homeschooled during her treatment, she will return to public school for her junior and senior year. She has a message for families who may need Alex's Place.

"If they were to come here, your kid will be comfortable in its surroundings," says Deonna. "You really won't have to worry. Everybody's friendly and they will really help you understand what you're going through."


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