Breakthrough cancer trials for children are a beacon of hope for patients and families | Ascension

Breakthrough cancer trials for children are a beacon of hope for patients and families

When Gina Poe’s 14-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer, she considered relocating out of state so that he could access breakthrough treatments that gave him the best quality of life, outcome and survival. To her surprise, she found world-class cancer care two hours away at Studer Family Children’s Hospital in Pensacola.
Six months ago, Sam Poe started experiencing fever, night sweats and swollen lymph nodes in his neck. Initially, their pediatrician thought Sam had an infection, so he prescribed antibiotics. When swelling continued for several months, they were referred to a specialist who ordered further tests and imaging. 

One week after celebrating his 14th birthday in December, Sam was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer that causes abnormal cell growth in the lymphatic system. 

“When we received test results, we were in disbelief,” Gina said. “I had never heard of Hodgkin lymphoma before in my life. The last thing you want to consider when your child is sick is that it’s cancer.”

With limited pediatric cancer resources in Panama City, Gina sought care from pediatric cancer experts at Studer Family Children's Hospital. During a virtual visit with pediatric hematologist/oncologist Dr. Erlyn Smith, Gina learned that Sam’s cancer had spread beyond his lymph nodes. Gina said the news was devastating, but Dr. Smith provided a ray of hope.

“Dr. Smith told us that Sam qualified for a clinical trial evaluating a new treatment combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy,” Gina said.

Studer Family Children’s Hospital is a member of the Children’s Oncology Group, a national network of pediatric cancer centers that level the research playing field by increasing access to pediatric cancer trials. 

Pediatric oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz said the program allows the research team to enroll kids in clinical trials for nearly all types of childhood cancer. 

“Clinical trials are not the exception, they are the standard of care for childhood cancers,” Schwartz said. “We are excited to offer children in our region the best treatments available anywhere.” 

The clinical trial Sam was enrolled in evaluates whether incorporating two different treatments improves cancer control. In addition to standard chemotherapy, Sam received immune modulation therapy, a promising treatment option that enhances the body's immune response against cancer. Sam received monthly treatments over a period of six months.

“After the first treatment, his fever went away,” Gina said. “The second, he quit having rashes. By the third, we couldn't feel the lymph nodes in his neck. We could really see a difference after each treatment.”

A cancer diagnosis can be an isolating experience, but Gina said her family found support through online support groups, Rally Pensacola, and their care team.

“The care we received was amazing,” Gina said. “The doctors and nurses were always there to answer questions no matter what time it was. I don't have the words to express how valuable these caregivers have been for my son and what treasures they are for our community.” 

Dr. Schwartz said the care team is focused on doing what’s right for the child and the family. “Whether it’s at Children’s Hospital or somewhere else, we will do what’s necessary for patients to get the right cancer care they need,” he said.

There are currently 26 clinical trials available for cancers of the brain and spine, liver, kidney, and blood. For more information about pediatric cancer trials available, call 850-416-1890.