Sept. 14, 2017 | Five-year-old Lilly Johnson may dream of going to Madagascar, but on a recent sunny Saturday she was happy to enjoy some wild animals a little closer to home.
As a patient of the UAMS Radiation Oncology Center (ROC), Lilly and her family were invited to enjoy a day at the Little Rock Zoo for the center’s ROC Star Kids event. The sixth annual gathering held Sept. 9 brought together childhood cancer survivors and their families from across the state. The UAMS Radiation Oncology Center is the only facility in Arkansas that provides radiation therapy for children.
Lilly’s parents, John Paul and Jennifer Johnson, drove their five children two hours from the south Arkansas town of Hermitage to participate. “Lilly dreams of going to Madagascar or Australia just to see the animals, so this was the perfect place for us to come and enjoy the day together,” said Jennifer. It also was perfect timing for Lilly, a Ewing sarcoma survivor, who had both celebrated her birthday and was declared to be in remission within the past two weeks. Ewing sarcoma is a tumor that forms in the bone or soft tissue and most often occurs in children and young adults.
“When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it affects the entire family. We are happy to provide this event each year for these special families to make memories and enjoy some relaxation together,” said Peter Emanuel, M.D., director of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute and professor in the UAMS College of Medicine.
A total of 82 pediatric cancer survivors and family members joined in the fun, which included unlimited time viewing the animals; train and carousel rides; and lunch. The event is hosted by the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Auxiliary.
For the parents, however, these events are more than just a fun family outing.
“Coming to ROC Star Kids reminds us we’re not alone. We share a camaraderie with the other families that helps us keep things in perspective,” said Steve Chamness, whose son, Zach, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma shortly before his second birthday. Although considered a rare cancer, medulloblastoma is the most commonly diagnosed malignant brain tumor in children.
Upon his diagnosis, Zach’s cancer had already spread to his spine and required both regular and high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplants at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, in addition to one month of radiation treatments at the UAMS Radiation Oncology Center.
Now 5, Zach is cancer free and attending kindergarten in his hometown of Cabot. “We’re just so grateful,” said his mom, Jill Chamness.
Jamie Weaver echoed that gratefulness about her daughter, Kaylee, and the care she received at UAMS. Diagnosed with neuroblastoma at age 3, Kaylee underwent 10 rounds of radiation therapy at ROC during her 15 total months of treatment. Now in second grade, Kaylee plays soccer, attends Sunday school and is “doing great,” her mom said, adding that she received clear scans earlier that week.
Prior ROC Star Kids events have been held at the UAMS Cancer Institute, an Arkansas Razorbacks football game, Little Rock’s Museum of Discovery and Dickey-Stephens Park. This is the first year to host the event at the Little Rock Zoo.
The program began with the encouragement and support of Arkansas’ former First Lady Ginger Beebe. Beebe’s granddaughter, Alexandria, was diagnosed at 11 weeks old with a tumor encircling her spinal column and was treated successfully at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.