Local girl continues battle with cancer.
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Every evening Adriana Muro tucks six of her children into bed before lying down beside her 7-year-old daughter Gia, who, since kindergarten, has been battling acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive type of blood cancer.
“I wake up each day,” Adriana says, her voice cracking with emotion. “And the first thing I do is check to see if Gia’s breathing.”
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for the past two years as Adriana and her husband Cruz raise seven children, all under the age of nine — Kimberly (8), Gia (7), Layla (6), Kyla (5), Ramona (4), Cruz (3) and Jonathan (nine months) — while fighting to keep their daughter alive.
It all started with flu-like symptoms that led doctors to suspect strep throat or mononucleosis. But Gia’s condition worsened, landing her in the emergency room multiple times with sky-high fevers. Then one morning in April 2015, Gia stumbled into her mom’s room and collapsed. When she came to, she started throwing up blood. A pediatrician took one look at this sweet, sickly girl and ordered a full lab panel.
“She has a rare form of cancer,” the doctor said.
“How can this be?” Adriana asked, fighting back tears. The room started spinning, words became muffled and the air seemed heavy as the family processed the shocking news. Just a few months before, Adriana was told to plug in a humidifier and administer antibiotics to her daughter. Now the doctor was telling her that had she waited a week longer, Gia would not have survived. Given a 60 percent chance of recovering, the family tried to stay positive.
Gia endured three months of chemo, complete with hair loss, extreme nausea and fevers that spiked to as high as 108. When she reached remission in September 2015, the family celebrated by taking a Caribbean Disney cruise, courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
“We left our nightmare behind and traveled to another world,” Adriana says. “It was very therapeutic.”
Gia only enjoyed a brief reprieve before relapsing in April 2016. Unfortunately, her body became immune to previous treatments. She was referred to Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital and put on an experimental drug called CPX, which slowly released medicine into the bloodstream, making it more effective.
Blast cells are immature cells found in bone marrow. Leukemia generally occurs when too many white blood cells remain as blast cells. The goal was to get Gia healthy enough to endure a bone marrow transplant. For that to happen, she needed to be at zero percent blast. After three months of chemotherapy, Gia was ready.
Miraculously, two of Gia’s siblings were a bone marrow match. Infant baby Cruz was not a viable option as he spent the early part of his life fighting to survive. Born at just 27 weeks, he weighed two pounds at birth, remained in the NICU for three months and came home with oxygen tanks and heart monitors. His body was too delicate to put him through surgery, but 4-year-old Layla was eager to help her big sister.
“Layla has always been so caring,” Adriana says. “She even shaved her head when Gia started to lose her hair.”
To prep for a bone marrow transplant, doctors administered double the dose of chemo medicine they give otherwise.
“It wiped out her marrow, killing not just the cancer but everything else, too,” Adriana says.
Chemo itself is sometimes lethal. Cardiac arrest, convulsions and seizures were also possibilities. With her own marrow destroyed, there was the risk that her body might reject the foreign stem cells when the new blood was introduced. This could result in liver or kidney failure.
The transplant happened in August 2016, and Gia remained hospitalized in Cincinnati for several months. Though the ordeal took a toll on her body, the surgery was a success. In remission, Gia’s energy returned, her labs improved and instead of regular trips to the hospital, she was down to bi-monthly checkups. Still, something in Adriana’s gut told her to have her daughter’s marrow tested one more time.
“I thought that maybe I was just paranoid after everything we’d been through, but my intuition told me otherwise,” recalls Adriana. In early March 2017, just a week after giving birth to Jonathan, Adriana’s worst fears were confirmed. The cancer was back.
“I was heartbroken. Gia had already been through the ringer with tons of surgeries, blood draws and chemo treatments,” Adriana says. “I thought that she’d finally caught a break and could be a kid. Now we had to gear back up again.”
When Adriana and her husband met with the oncologist, a stem cell expert, and a social worker, they had a list of questions.
“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to have to ask how much longer your child has left on earth,” Adriana says. The response was equally nightmarish as doctors speculated a 20 to 30 percent chance of survival.
“All blood drained from my face. I started shaking. I completely lost it,” Adriana says. “The way the doctors looked at me told me that moving forward, this was a shot in the dark. Do you know how heartbreaking it is to have to talk to hospice and palliative care teams about your second-grader?”
The harrowing ordeal has made Adriana passionate about encouraging parents to advocate for their children’s health.
“Parents aren’t given any idea what to look for when it comes to cancer symptoms in kids,” Adriana says. “That needs to change.”
When doctors described Gia’s level of pain, they said it felt like being beaten repeatedly by a hundred hockey sticks all over the body.
“That made me feel so guilty,” Adriana says. “Here I was trying to persuade my daughter to get out of bed, completely oblivious to how sick she was.”
This harrowing two and a half year experience has taught Adriana that pediatric cancer research is severely underfunded. According to Flashes of Hope, whose mission it is to raise funds to accelerate a cure for children’s cancer, only four percent of U.S. federal funding for research goes to childhood cancer. In addition, only one drug has been developed for pediatric cancer in the past 20 years, forcing physicians to treat children using outdated drugs.
“It’s tragic enough that kids have to fight this battle, but then they’re not even armed with decent funding to provide hope for finding cures,” Adriana says.
In August 2017, Gia suffered another setback. At the time, Adriana was hospitalized with health issues of her own. Her husband called her in a panic with news that Gia was vomiting blood and gasping for air. Gia was rushed to the ER where she was put in an induced coma for three days. She was then transferred to the hematology floor for tests.
Currently, Gia is taking different types of chemotherapy — some intravenously, others orally. She’s also getting platelet transfusions three times a week to ready her body for a second bone marrow transplant. Though Gia is a fierce fighter, her mom worries about how much more Gia can endure. In September, while waiting for a transfusion at the clinic, she suddenly started throwing up blood and was rushed to ICU.
“She’s a walking miracle, but we’re taking it day-by-day, minute-by-minute, second-by-second,” Adriana says. “So much in our lives right now is unknown, but this much I do know — this is my calling, to bring awareness to childhood cancer in hopes of increasing research funding. We desperately need to find innovative ways to find a cure because precious children are dying daily.”
How You Can Help
Dawn Horner, a former teacher of Gia’s older sister, wanted to bring awareness to childhood cancer so she and colleague, Chrissy Stranko, organized several fundraisers in Gia’s honor. In September, they hosted a Chick-fil-A fundraiser. Currently, they’re planning another fundraising event with proceeds benefitting childhood cancer research for Riley Hospital.
“Adriana is adamant that donations support childhood cancer research, medicine and treatment for children,” Stranko says. “She wants to increase funding to go toward childhood cancer research in hopes of saving lives.”