For children who have had leukemia, it is known as the day they were born again.
It is the day they are told that their bone marrow transplants have been successful and that the disease is gone permanently.
At Children’s Hospital of Orange County on Monday, 11 of the 23 young leukemia victims who have been successfully treated at the hospital gathered together for the first time to celebrate their new lives.
In a large room decorated with balloons, the children, whose ages range from 3 to 17, and their parents ate cake and swapped stories about life after cancer.
For Jeff Baker, a lanky sun-tanned 17-year-old sporting a head of unruly sun-bleached blond hair, things have never been better. His family and girlfriend, who were with him at the party, would surely agree.
Jeff, a San Clemente High School student, underwent the transplant operation three years ago. Next week, he will receive letters in water polo and swimming.
“It’s like a whole new breath of life,” Jeff said. “I look at things so differently now.”
Ten years ago, Jeff’s chances for survival would have been minimal.
Before bone marrow transplants became a common leukemia treatment, which happened in the 1980s, the survival rate was “between zero and 25%,” said Dr. Mitchell Cairo, director of the CHOC bone marrow program.
Bone marrow transplants have raised the survival rate significantly, Cairo said. Since CHOC began its bone-marrow program in 1986, 23 of 33 children who received transplants at the hospital are still alive.
“With any other form of treatment,” Cairo said, “the chances go down dramatically. Bone marrow transplants give them a chance to overcome the odds.”
“Their lives mean a lot. That’s why we held this celebration,” said Carol Blanchard, director of the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, a fund-raising group which organized the party and has funneled more than $1 million to CHOC for cancer research since 1982. “Every day is a new lease on life for these children, and that’s what we want to recognize,” Blanchard said.
Jeff’s mother, Janis Baker, smiled as she looked at her son, who was busy chatting with a television reporter.
But she recalled grimmer days.
“We nearly lost him twice” during treatment, she said. “I often wonder if we had lived elsewhere and gone to another hospital--if we would have been so fortunate. I feel so fortunate.”