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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital

Family Turns to World-Class Neuroblastoma Team for Expertise, Support

The only sign that 2-year-old Maggie Leander ever had cancer is a tiny dot—a radiation tattoo—on her belly.

Maggie was just 10 days old when Iowa doctors told Breanna and Luke Leander that their baby had neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nerve cells.

Neuroblastoma is the most common cancer in infants and one of the most common in children younger than 10. It's an unusual cancer, in that some children will have a spontaneous remission without treatment. In others, the disease is aggressive and deadly despite intensive chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants.

Maggie had a low-risk form, but as the tumor in her tiny body grew to the size of a cantaloupe, her breathing became labored and rapid. The Leanders, who live in western Illinois, wanted a second opinion.

One sleepless night, while reading a book from the Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation, Breanna Leander spotted the name of an internationally recognized expert on the disease from the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital—pediatric oncologist Susan L. Cohn, MD.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, there is someone in my state who's an expert on this. And it's Dr. Cohn,'" Leander said.

"People have told me she is the best in the country. I think so, too." 

Cohn has dedicated her career to caring for children with neuroblastoma and to researching new treatments. She is one of the few pediatric oncologists in the United States conducting Phase 1 clinical trials of the very newest therapies, which offer hope for children with aggressive, relapsed disease. She also is co-chair of an international task force that is compiling data on neuroblastoma patients from around the world.

"The main goal is to use the data to further understand the biology of this complex cancer and develop more effective treatments," Cohn said.

That type of expertise immediately drew Maggie's parents to Cohn. So did her warm, relaxed nature and "confident but cautious" approach, Breanna Leander said.

"Here's this leading expert from the University of Chicago, and she told me I could call her at home if I had any questions," Leander said. "It was unheard of."

Maggie Leander

Maggie Leander

Cohn immediately started tiny Maggie on inpatient chemotherapy. During Maggie's four-week hospital stay, the Leanders were impressed with the level of expertise shown by the entire treatment team, from the ultrasound technicians to the pathologists.

Soon, Maggie's tumor began to shrink, and her liver, which had been marbled with cancer, was clear.

While the Leanders could continue their twice-yearly follow-up appointments closer to their home in Cambridge, Ill., the family prefers to make the 2-hour drive each way to see Cohn.

"There's no way I'm going anywhere else," Leander said. "People have told me she is the best in the country. I think so, too."

This story originally ran in the Summer 2012 issue of Imagine, a quarterly magazine published by the University of Chicago Medicine.