Shining through cancer

Expert care wiped out cancer and kept a little girl smiling

Expert care wiped out cancer and kept a little girl smiling

At 9 years old, Eliza Downs lights up a room. She’s been doing so ever since she was a baby, even through a dark time when she was undergoing cancer treatment. Eliza was just 6 months old when she spent time in Norton Children’s Hospital’s cancer unit. Even then, she was a light on the unit.

Her journey began at 2 months old, when she developed nodules along her diaper line. Eliza was the fourth baby in the Downs family, so her mother, Margie, didn’t worry too much about the lumps at first. But two weeks later, some had disappeared, new ones had appeared and some looked like they had turned black and blue.

Concerned about the lumps, at her next well check visit, Eliza’s pediatrician ran blood work, which came back normal. At that point the pediatrician believed she had subcutaneous fat necrosis, a rare but benign condition that would eventually go away. Then the lumps appeared above one eye and underneath the other eye. The pediatrician sent Eliza to a dermatologist for a second opinion.

“Right away the dermatologist thought it was some type of lymphoma,” Margie said. “He did a biopsy and two days later we found out it was neuroblastoma.”

“Neuroblastoma is a relatively rare childhood cancer, but the most common cancer we see in infants. It can develop from immature nerve cells in several areas of the body,” said Ashok B. Raj, M.D., pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Norton Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at the University of Louisville School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics. “It most commonly arises in or around the adrenal glands. However, it can also develop in other areas of the abdomen, chest, neck and near the spine — anywhere that has groups of nerve cells.”

“The way it presented itself in Eliza was quite rare, but we look at it as a blessing,” Margie said. “If we didn’t see those outward signs, we might otherwise have never seen it.”

Despite the advantage of seeing those outward signs, hearing your baby has cancer is not something a parent is ever prepared for. Margie and Eliza’s father, Jimmy, were in shock.

“It was a whirlwind — we were immediately sent to Norton Children’s Hospital for scans,” Margie said. “During such a stressful time, we couldn’t have been treated any better. Everyone was so compassionate and so good to all the worried mothers.”

Eliza’s scans detected tumors in or around her lungs, liver, bones, bone marrow, kidneys and brain, with the main tumor, the size of a lemon, on her adrenal gland. She needed eight rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor on her adrenal gland.

“Through it all Eliza never got sick,” Margie said. “She had four chemotherapy treatments, which shrunk the tumors, then she had surgery to remove the adrenal tumor, followed by the remaining four chemotherapy treatments.”

Margie breastfed through it all and credits it with helping Eliza get through the grueling treatment smoothly and with a smile on her face. Eliza quickly became a favorite on the cancer unit at Norton Children’s Hospital.

“She was always smiling and the nurses all wanted to hold her and care for her,” Margie said.

Thanks to the expert care she received, Eliza is now cancer-free and continues to shine on despite all she’s been through. She is an active third-grader at St. Joseph School in Bardstown, Ky., loves science and is an award-winning piano player.

What does she want to be when she grows up? A cowgirl … and a doctor!

“I want to cure cancer and also Alzheimer’s, because that’s what my grandma has,” Eliza said.

“I went into this experience saying I just want to get to the hospital and get this over with — I’m not going to make any friends,” Margie said. “And then I ended up making friends. Everyone at the hospital is so wonderful. I don’t know what we would have done without them.”

More about neuroblastoma

Most people have never heard of neuroblastoma, a rare type of cancer that almost always occurs in infants and young children. Though it’s the most common type of cancer in infants, it’s still rare enough that many doctors have never cared for a child with neuroblastoma. Only about 700 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. Neuroblastoma usually forms before a child is born but isn’t found until later, when the tumor begins to grow and affect the body. When neuroblastoma is diagnosed in infancy, the chance of recovery is good.

The Addison Jo Blair Cancer Care Center at Norton Children’s Hospital is home to a renowned pediatric oncology/hematology and stem cell transplant program and is the country’s oldest continually accredited children’s oncology program by the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer. As the teaching facility for the

University of Louisville School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and a Magnet-designated hospital recognized for nursing excellence, Norton Children’s Hospital maintains an unwavering dedication to children in need of cancer care in our region.

Looking for ways to support cancer care, treatment and research at Norton Children’s Hospital?

Bring the Family to Bike to Beat Cancer, Sept. 20

Whether you have beginner or experienced cyclists in your family, you can help kids fighting cancer by participating in the Bike to Beat Cancer. The 5-mile Family Ride traverses beautiful Norton Commons. It’s the perfect way to have fun and get healthy with your whole family while supporting a great cause! Registration fee is $25 per family and no fundraising is required. When you sign up, you’ll be entered for a chance to win one of two kid’s bikes.

The Bike to Beat Cancer supports adults being cared for at Norton Cancer Institute and children being cared for at Norton Children’s Hospital. Funds raised help these facilities offer the best programs, services and advanced care available.

For more information or to register, visit

Push-ups for Pediatric Cancer

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month and Norton Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Hospital Foundation is launching Push-ups for Pediatric Cancer to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer care and research. Learn more about how you can participate:


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