Little Fighter: Julianna Driggers’ Battle with Neuroblastoma
“Make sure you fight."
Jennifer Driggers uttered those four words to her daughter the day after Julianna was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer.
It was March 2017 and Julianna, known to her family as Jules, was only 5 years old. She was full of life — a true spitfire as her family would say. After she started having chest pain, Julianna was sent to UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital for tests. At the beginning of March, an X-ray showed a concerning spot on her chest. By the end of March, CT scans revealed a large tumor in the back of her chest cavity. Her parents, John and Jennifer, were introduced to Joanne Lagmay, M.D., director of the pediatric solid tumor program at the children’s hospital, as well as pediatric oncologist Brian Stover, M.D., and pediatric oncology nurse practitioner Lauren Staley, APRN.
“We knew there was a solid tumor, but we still did not have definitive answers on how serious it was,” Jennifer said. “The concerning part was that it seemed to be so close to Julianna’s spine, and it appeared to be trying to grow back into her spinal cord.”
Because of the tumor’s location, there was a chance that Julianna could end up paralyzed, but an MRI revealed that the tumor was not compressing her spinal cord. That was a good sign.
Saleem Islam, M.D., UF Health’s chief of pediatric surgery, did a biopsy on the tumor. Because of the tumor’s location in Julianna’s thoracic cavity, Islam was one of a few pediatric surgeons in Florida able to do an intrathoracic procedure with scopes, which is what she needed for the biopsy.
“Even though we had to go through this, the timing was working out by giving us the best experts. We were very thankful to be given the best of the best,” Jennifer said.
A few days after the biopsy and after a deeper look into Julianna’s scans, the doctors confirmed that she had stage 3 neuroblastoma. The tumor was in the chest cavity behind her heart. It was large and wrapped around her aorta. It went through her diaphragm and extended into her abdominal cavity. It was on top of her left kidney.
“It was so overwhelming as parents,” Jennifer said. “That was our baby. And at that point, we didn’t know what to expect. There were lots of emotions running through us.”
Julianna was admitted to an isolation room on the pediatric hematology/oncology floor of UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.
“I remember Dr. Lagmay reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder,” Jennifer said. “I started crying, and I remember her telling me that we’re going to walk through this together. She assured me that she and her team would come up with a plan to give Jules the best possible chance to survive.”
Julianna did not know exactly what was happening.
“She saw her family continuously crying, and she just kept apologizing to us for her diagnosis,” said Jennifer. “I told her that, ‘If you have to go through this, make sure you fight.’”
Those words presented other challenges because Julianna actually started to “fight.” Everyone who came into her room to provide care was greeted with punches, kicks and screams to get out. With the help of child life specialists, Julianna was able to learn more about the medical equipment that was connected to her and what the nurses and doctors would be doing during her treatment, which helped ease her nerves.
Julianna began an 18-month treatment plan, which included four rounds of chemotherapy with different types of medications. After her second round of chemotherapy, she went through apheresis, a procedure used to collect stem cells from her blood, with the goal of harvesting the stem cells for a future transplant. In July 2017, Julianna’s tumor had shrunk by 23% and was no longer going through her abdominal cavity. Islam removed almost all of the tumor during surgery, leaving only the parts that could not be taken out safely. A few weeks later, Julianna returned to the children’s hospital for one more round of chemotherapy. In September, she went in for a bone marrow transplant in which her own stem cells were infused back into her body.
Post-transplant, Julianna’s road to recovery would require another 28 days in the Children’s Hospital.
“The first eight days after the bone marrow transplant were the toughest,” John said. “She had very high fevers that wouldn’t break with medication, her liver was enlarged, and she needed multiple blood and platelet transfusions. She hardly responded to us, which was nerve-wracking.”
On the eighth day, there were signs of the first cells. While nominal, it meant that the bone marrow was working again — a symbol of new life.
Julianna continued making more progress, and on the 28th day, she was discharged.
“It was exciting,” John said. “Jules had gotten better every day, and her liver went back to its normal size. She was starting to feel good.”
Julianna made it home by her 6th birthday and enjoyed a mermaid party with friends and family. One week after, she started 20 days of radiation under sedation and then went through six rounds of inpatient immunotherapy.
On the day that Julianna rang the chemotherapy bell to signify the end of treatment, there was another setback — a new scan revealed a lesion on her shinbone.
A week later, the family received news that there were no living cells in that tumor. They breathed a sigh of relief and couldn’t wait to tell everyone that Jules had beaten cancer.
Now 9 years old, Julianna is back to being Miss Independent. Her spirit has been restored and she’s full of energy, passion and lots of sass — characteristics that helped her fight when she was diagnosed with cancer.
The family could not be more thankful for the care Julianna received at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital and her incredible outcome.
“All of the people involved in Jules’ treatment were more than just care providers,” John said. “After spending more than a year with them, we created a bond that we will never forget. We consider them to be part of our family and cannot thank them enough for saving Jules.”