By Ann Baker and Steve Blanchard
Certified Medical Assistant Kalycha Guzman doesn’t usually wear a superheroes scrub shirt to work in the Cutaneous Clinic at Moffitt McKinley Outpatient Center. But somehow, it made sense on August 7 when the afternoon’s 24 clinic patients were all children.
As the person who’d be recording their vital signs, Guzman wanted to be sure she was in the spirit – from her scrubs right down to the crazy hat created for her by a balloon artist entertaining the young patients.
“It’s a little heartbreaking to see them dealing with cancer so young,” Guzman shared. “But their energy is so positive. They’re always happy – they’re kids! I wish we could pass some of their energy along to our adult patients.”
Dr. Vernon Sondak heads up the pediatric melanoma clinic, which includes children’s activities, treats and balloon animals. He says it’s important to make the event something pediatric patients look forward to and not something they dread. “We want this to be a celebration that recognizes what these kids have gone through and triumphed over, and at the same time we want there to be a positive message about the future: reminding them to protect themselves from the sun and encourage other kids to do the same thing.”
Diagnosing melanoma in children can be difficult and it is usually necessary to consult with an expert
pathologist to make sure that it is in fact melanoma. At Moffitt, a variety of additional tests and procedures are often conducted to establish the diagnosis with the highest possible degree of certainty and treat it the most effectively. Fortunately, the prognosis for most children with melanoma is quite favorable, and progress made in treating adult melanoma is helping improve outcomes for children, as well.
Parents like Bryan Bailey of Seffner, Fla. are glad to have Moffitt’s expertise regardless what day they come to clinic. Bailey’s son Parker wasn’t even in kindergarten when his parents discovered something on his ear that later tested positive as melanoma. Now seven years old with five surgeries behind him, Parker appears to be cancer free.
“I went numb when I heard it was cancer,” said Bailey. “It wasn’t easy explaining to Parker that he had cancer, but it was really tough explaining it to his older brother, Aidan. The boys had just lost their grandmother to lung cancer right before Parker’s diagnosis and it was difficult for Aidan to distinguish between the two forms of cancer. He had a tough time with his brother’s diagnosis.
“Dr. Sondak and Dr. (C. Wayne) Cruse are both great,” added Bailey. “They have made a stressful time much easier.”
Talking to others who’ve faced similar experiences also helps, so this year’s clinic featured a special visitor. Kadynce Royer doesn’t remember being diagnosed with melanoma at 2 ½ years old. She does remember enduring interferon shots every other day and the bullying of classmates who said the scars on her face left her “not pretty enough to be anything.”
Kadynce is from Texas and got her treatment there, but now that she’s entering eighth grade, Kadynce spends her free time as an advocate for melanoma awareness and as a fashion model, despite a streak of shyness. “The first time I had to tell my story on video, I cried,” Kadynce recalled. But she kept at it because she understood the connection she could make to other kids with melanoma. With support from mom Brenda, the director of Community Engagement with the AIM at Melanoma Foundation who also attended the Moffitt Kids Clinic to network with and support patients and their families, Kadynce has lobbied Congress and state legislators to raise awareness about pediatric melanoma. She’s also formed lasting friendships with fellow pediatric melanoma patients across the country. “When they have a bad day, they reach out to me,” she said, “because I know what they’re going through.” Her participation in the annual Moffitt Kids Clinic helped make it a positive experience for patients and their families, and has the staff in the Cutaneous Clinic looking forward to next year.