Cancer Center

Pediatric Neuroblastoma: Charlie's Story

Charlie Haughey
Stage 4 pediatric neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer, required aggressive treatment, including stem cell transplantation for this energetic 3-year-old.

Charlie Haughey had been having ear aches and belly aches for nearly two months. In December, after yet another appointment, his pediatrician became so concerned she told his parents to take him to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Emergency Department.

Numerous specialists, including a rheumatologist and a neurologist, examined Charlie. No one was sure what was wrong, until a CT scan of his abdomen showed a large mass.

After performing the scan on Christmas Eve, the doctors came to speak with Charlie’s parents, Julie and Mike. They explained the diagnosis of stage 4 pediatric neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer. If all went according to plan, they explained, Charlie faced approximately one and a half years of treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery to remove the abdominal tumor, stem cell transplantation, radiation and antibody therapy.

It was the day before Christmas and three days before Charlie’s third birthday. “The doctors said, ‘Go home and have Christmas with your family and celebrate his birthday,” Julie recalls. “Charlie’s birthday was on December 27, the day we were scheduled to return to CHOP. Our friends threw a big Thomas birthday party for him. It was really a birthday and going-away party all at the same time. It was the perfect send-off to the beginning of a long and difficult journey. We were admitted later that day to begin Charlie’s treatment.”

Since December, Julie and Mike have made the hour-long trip to the Cancer Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from their home in Medford Lakes, N.J., countless times. One of them is always with Charlie when he is at the hospital. Their family, friends and community have been a wonderful source of support, particularly for Charlie’s sisters, who are 6 and 8.

As the Haughey family experiences the terrible ordeal of having a child with cancer, they have found cause for hope — because they know they are in the best possible place. Researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are international leaders in the development of new treatments for pediatric neuroblastoma. Doctors from across the U.S. and the world send patients here.

“I can’t begin explain how grateful we are to be here,” Julie Haughey says. “Think of the people all over the world who don’t have access to this kind of care. We have met a number of people from other countries who have traveled here. We’re only an hour away and we feel just so fortunate to have CHOP in our own back yard.”

Between December and May, Charlie had six rounds of chemotherapy, to kill the cancer cells and shrink the tumor. During a 10-hour surgery in May, Thane Blinman, MD, was able to remove more than 90 percent of the tumor. Charlie is now undergoing a stem cell transplant.

Charlie passes time in his hospital room playing computer games, playing with trains and LEGOs, and having his parents read to him. When he’s tired or not feeling well, he likes to unwind by “tickling” his mommy’s hair and watching Thomas the Tank Engine. “When we’re here at CHOP, it’s all Thomas, all the time,” his mom says.

“Charlie is doing remarkably well,” she says. “It’s really amazing how well he transitions from home to the hospital. At first, being in the hospital or going to clinic was scary for him, but now there are so many friendly and familiar faces. He knows the routine and likes to help the nurses and doctors in any way he can. It’s amazing how much he has learned and how quickly he has adapted to this new world. Clinic visits have become fun, too, because we get to see friends, play with other toys and feed the fish. He has always been a very easy-going, happy little boy. That’s just part of his nature and it has helped to make this road a little bit easier to travel.”

The Haugheys have come to regard Children’s Hospital staff as “extended family,” Charlie’s mom says. “Everyone at CHOP is so wonderful. The nurses are phenomenal. Everyone from the food service people to the physicians is so friendly, on the ball and supportive. They have all been there to help us through the challenging moments, hours and days, and to celebrate the good ones.”

After one month in the hospital for a stem cell transplant and two weeks of radiation later this summer, Charlie will undergo an antibody therapy designed to seek out and eradicate cancer cells that are hiding in the body; the treatment has helped prevent relapse in some children.

As they fight alongside their son, the Haughey family has made it their mission to raise awareness and money for research into pediatric cancer at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. On their fundraising web page, they write:

“Charlie is an incredible little boy. He has a charming, easy going personality and a beautiful smile that will light up a room and melt your heart. He is loved by so many people. Though we are new to the world of oncology, we are learning quickly. We are so blessed to have CHOP in our own backyard. We know that we are going to encounter many peaks and valleys in the months to come, but with our faith and the love and support of our family, friends and community, we will make it up and over this mountain.”

Learn more about our pediatric cancer treatment programs.

Read more pediatric cancer patient stories from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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