What Savannah Gomes remembers most about Christmas Day at age 16 is not the presents or delicious food, but that her long, brown hair began falling out.
“That’s one of the most traumatic things for any girl but especially a teenager,” recalled Savannah, who had been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a childhood cancer that begins in cells that become skeletal muscle cells.
Referred to Children’s Hospital Craycroft Cancer Center, the then high school cheerleader had just begun radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor that developed near her left eye. The tumor’s proximity to other vital structures in her brain made surgical removal impractical.
Connecting with Children’s Hospital
Savannah and her family, who live in Prather, a small mountain town north of Fresno, felt an immediate connection with Children’s experienced pediatric oncologists and nurses.
“We knew we could have gone to Stanford or St. Jude’s, but we chose Children’s since they use the same cancer protocols and are closer to home,” said Sharon Gomes, Savannah’s mom. “Everyone there has so much compassion and knew exactly what to do for our daughter.”
“Several of the nurses have had kids with cancer or cancer themselves,” said Savannah. “They understood what I was going through.”
The Craycroft Cancer Center is one of the leading pediatric cancer facilities on the West Coast and the only provider of pediatric oncology services in the region. The Center is a member of Children’s Oncology Group (COG), a prominent research collaborative that works to identify cancer causes and pioneer new treatments and cures.
Road to recovery
Savannah’s road to remission continued for a year. During that time, she tried to maintain a normal life, from wearing stylish wigs when she lost the rest of her hair from treatment, to completing a home-study program so she wouldn’t fall behind in school.
“Savannah never had a ‘poor me’ attitude,” said Sharon. “Her approach was, ‘whatever we have to do, let’s do it.’”
By summer, most of Savannah’s tumor was gone. She had her last treatment in September and returned to school that fall. Determined to get back in the saddle, she served as co-captain of the cheer team, and attended the winter formal, prom and senior graduation trip. She even made valedictorian.
“Savannah never let the disease stop her from doing what she wanted to do,” said Dr. J. Daniel Ozeran, one of seven pediatric hematologists/oncologists at Children’s.
Nevertheless, he said Savannah had her moments. “One time she didn’t want to wear the ankle brace she needed due to nerve damage because she thought it clashed with her shoes,” said Dr. Ozeran with a chuckle.
“Those two definitely have a bond,” said Sharon of Savannah’s rapport with Dr. Ozeran, who is known for using humor to keep patients’ spirits up. “He didn’t let her get away with much but she gave it right back!”
Now with excellent vision and studying child psychology in college, Savannah is thankful for the care she received at Children’s and her life. “I would look at the nurses who survived cancer and whose hair grew back and think, ‘There is an end to this,’” said Savannah, whose own long locks returned. “Just persevere.”