Zoey wants everyone to know: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is the absolute best. From the doctors who diagnosed her thyroid cancer, to the surgical team who removed her tumor and 20-plus lymph nodes in November 2022, and the countless nurses and staff who have supported her throughout her journey.
To thank her team, the 8-year-old gifted each member with a keychain that read: “May you be proud of the work you do, the person you are, and the difference you make.”
Three months after surgery, Zoey says she feels “really good.” Her parents, Lisa and Rob, continue to marvel at the third grader’s “amazing” rebound since being diagnosed with Graves’ disease and papillary thyroid cancer.
Zoey was 4 years old when she began exhibiting erratic and uncontrollable behavior. She was sweating all the time and had an extremely rapid heart rate – 140 beats a minute when resting, compared to a typical child’s rate of 80-120 beats a minute. Zoey was often upset and inconsolable with no known cause.
Alarmed with the changes in her daughter, Lisa talked with Zoey’s pediatrician, who recommended a consultation with a local cardiologist. The cardiologist preformed an electrocardiogram (EKG) on Zoey, which revealed a benign tachycardia (rapid heart rate). The New Jersey family was told Zoey’s condition would likely resolve on its own.
“We were thinking she was fine, but her behavior got progressively worse,” Lisa says. “At its worst, she would throw herself down on the ground in an outrage, kicking and screaming.”
Seeking a second opinion at CHOP
Things continued to get worse for Zoey before they got better. Zoey remembers feeling hot all the time. Her appetite fluctuated, and she started losing weight, her mother says.
It was when the mother of Zoey’s best friend took a photograph of the girls during a spa outing, capturing a mass the size of a lemon on the middle of Zoey’s neck, that everything changed.
“I was on the phone with the pediatrician the next day,” Lisa recalls. “She ordered a bunch of thyroid studies on Zoey and the results all came back insane.”
Though concerned, Lisa said she felt a sigh of relief knowing they could now get Zoey treatment for her thyroid condition. When their local doctor suggested a course of treatment that Lisa, a veteran nurse, disagreed with, the family sought a second opinion at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
The family met with Andrew J. Bauer, MD, medical director of CHOP’s Pediatric Thyroid Center, who performed a though examination of Zoey before offering an official diagnosis: Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease causes the body to produce too much thyroid hormone, enlarging the thyroid and increasing blood flow to the area.
More About Graves’ Disease
“It was life-changing when we got to CHOP,” Lisa says. “Dr. Bauer was very thorough and really wanted to come up with a treatment plan that was best for Zoey. He was so informative. If we asked the same question twice, he answered it three times.”
Dr. Bauer prescribed medications for Zoey, and regular follow-up visits to monitor her thyroid function and how well treatment was working. At each visit, Zoey had an ultrasound. Dr. Bauer continued to monitor a certain area in Zoey’s neck. In October 2022 – when ultrasound results indicated the area appeared to have changed – Dr. Bauer recommended Zoey get a biopsy of the area.
“November was a difficult month,” says Lisa. Zoey underwent a biopsy on Nov. 1. Three days later, the family learned Zoey had papillary thyroid cancer, a form of differentiated thyroid cancer. On Nov. 15, the family met with Ken Kazahaya, MD, MBA, FACS, FAAP, for a pre-surgical visit; and on Nov. 21, Zoey underwent surgery to remove the tumor.
Support from her friends and her faith
Zoey says her CHOP team made her feel less nervous about the surgery – and a special teddy bear from a teacher helped give her strength.
“Zoey’s art teacher bought a bear and passed it around to all her classmates,” Lisa says. “One by one they each hugged it, and then the bear was blessed by a priest,” Lisa says. “When the teacher gave it to Zoey, she said, ‘Whenever you feel scared, you can get a hug from all your classmates.’”
On surgery day, Zoey’s whole school went to church and prayed for her. Meanwhile, Zoey’s parents sat in the hospital waiting room, joined by Zoey’s grandparents, and Zoey’s best friend and her mother.
After surgery, Zoey was out of bed within hours – walking around the unit with her IV pole, her mother says. Zoey went home the following day and was feeling better in time to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with her family.
“After that, there has been no looking back,” says Lisa.
Zoey returned to school the following Monday and has recently resumed competitive cheerleading as if she never had any health issues.
“She’s doing great,” her mother says. “We are very grateful to CHOP. If it weren’t for Dr. Bauer, I don’t know what the outcome would have been. He saw an area of concern and monitored it until he saw a change,” Lisa says. “By acting quickly, Zoey has a great quality of life and can pursue all her interests.’
Zoey will continue taking medication for hypothyroidism for the rest of her life. Her dad has been on the same medication for nearly 10 years. Lisa adds: “Every morning, they take it together. They salute each other.”