By Alexandra Becker
As a seasoned nurse and now, a clinical coordinator for Women’s Services at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital, Danielle Criswell has always prided herself on her ability to be both empathetic and professional, helping guide countless families in their health journeys. But when her five-year-old became ill in 2018, Danielle was faced with a challenge for which no amount of training or experience could have prepared her.
It was February and Danielle’s daughter, Lauryn, was attending a local preschool; one day, both Danielle and her teachers noticed that Lauryn was acting lethargic. Danielle took her daughter to their pediatrician who, after learning that Lauryn had recently been exposed to strep throat, diagnosed her with the same condition. She was given antibiotics and sent home to rest. A few days later, however, rather than showing signs of recovering, she became even more ill—sleeping for hours on end and growing less responsive. By then it was a Saturday, so Danielle brought Lauryn to an urgent care where the doctors took one quick look at her pupils and told Danielle to rush her to Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center.
“Almost as soon as we arrived, Lauryn had a seizure,” Danielle recalled. “That event led to a brain scan, which revealed a tumor. As someone with medical training, I understood what was happening, but thinking back on that day it still seems surreal. No one can prepare you for getting that news about your own daughter, or for watching her have seizures or get intubated.”
The tumor had caused Lauryn’s brain to swell, which was why she had continued to grow lethargic, then experience seizures. She needed immediate surgery to alleviate the pressure, so she was transferred to Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital that same evening. A few days after that surgery, she had another surgery to remove the tumor.
“I remember the second surgery took nearly 7 hours, but they were able to remove all of it,” Danielle recalled. “Unfortunately, they tested some of her spinal fluid and they did detect cancer cells there. We were still hopeful, but our doctors did not sugarcoat anything. Her cancer was extremely serious.”
Lauryn started radiation almost immediately, then after that, a course of chemotherapy. Both treatments were difficult and Lauryn experienced extreme side effects on her young, still growing body, especially from the chemotherapy. After finishing that initial course of treatment, the family went on a vacation to Disney World sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They timed it for November 12: Lauryn’s sixth birthday.
“It was a truly wonderful trip, and we made so many happy memories during that time,” Danielle said. “I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity.”
Unfortunately, by February of the following year, Lauryn’s cancer had returned. Danielle and her husband both agreed that they would not put her through the same course of chemotherapy, but instead tried every other treatment option available, including additional surgeries, other medical interventions and even holistic approaches. Lauryn’s cancer, however, was too advanced and aggressive, and ultimately she was not able to survive it.
“For the longest time I was barely able to even talk about it, but now, two years later, I am ready to share my experience so that I can raise awareness about childhood cancers and how devastating they can be,” Danielle said. “They are consistently underfunded and under-researched, and I want to do everything in my power to change that for other families who are going through what we went through.”
According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, cancer is the No. 1 cause of death by disease among children, yet only 4 percent of the billions of dollars allocated by the government for cancer research is spent on research focused on treating childhood cancer.
“Children need treatment options developed specifically for them—for the types of cancers that most commonly affect them but also for their bodies, which are still developing,” Danielle said. “Not only are cancer treatments especially hard on children, but they can also lead to long-term health issues amongst childhood cancer survivors.”
That phenomenon, known as late effects of chemotherapy, is well documented, with more than 95 percent of childhood cancer survivors experiencing significant health issues directly related to their cancer treatments. According to the American Cancer Society, these late effects are often caused by drugs designed for adult cancer patients, which can have an especially harmful impact on children’s healthy cells since they are still growing and developing.
Danielle has become involved in a handful of organizations focused on raising awareness of these important issues. One local nonprofit, Addi’s Faith, hosts fundraising events to help bolster childhood cancer research while also providing financial and emotional support to families who are caring for a child with cancer.
“We started Addi’s Faith after my 18-month-old was diagnosed with a brain tumor,” said Amber Bender, whose organization has donated more than $2 million since 2008. “I know first-hand how difficult it is to care for a child with cancer—emotionally, but also financially. Our goal is to help fund this critical research while also alleviating some of the financial burdens for families so that they can focus on helping their child get better.”
This Sunday, on Halloween morning, Addi’s Faith will be hosting a fundraising walk at Stampede Houston. The event will feature a costume contest, games, face painting, food, and family-friendly entertainment.
“I would encourage everyone to get involved in this important issue,” Danielle said. “Childhood cancer is devastating for families. With more funding and research, I’m confident we can develop new, less toxic treatment options specifically for children and, even better yet, a cure.”