This article originally appeared on the Dana-Farber Insight blog.
Jessica Tierney never thought she’d experience a harder moment than learning she had cancer at age 15 – until her 7-year-old daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) in October 2013.
Emma is undergoing treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund Clinic, just as Jessica did in 1991. “Emma already knew I had once been really sick, so I told her, ‘Look at me. I was treated a long time ago, and the medicine is even better now,” Jessica Tierney recalls of hearing her daughter’s diagnosis.
Jessica is a survivor of acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a different leukemia than Emma has. Jessica was always told there was no danger of passing AML down to her two children, but there may be an ALL-AML link involved.
“Familial causes of leukemia are rare, and the occurrence of ALL and AML in a parent and child is particularly unusual,” says Kimberly Davies, MD, medical director of the Jimmy Fund Clinic and Emma Tierney’s oncologist. “We have not identified a genetic link between the two, but the coincidence of childhood leukemia in a mother and her child raises intriguing questions about possible overlapping causes of myeloid and lymphoid leukemias. Research into the genetic profile of different leukemias may bring us closer to identifying a link.”
As this search continues, so does Emma’s treatment. She is on a two-year ALL treatment plan, much longer than Jessica’s two months of AML therapy, but the experiences are similar in other ways. One of Emma’s caregivers, Jimmy Fund Staff Nurse Robin Griffey, RN, BSN, also treated Jessica.
Still, says Jessica, “it’s totally different being on the other side. When you’re a patient, it doesn’t faze you as much. You just do it. As a parent, it’s much harder. You feel helpless.”
Jessica is lucky to have a strong support system. Although her mother died of bladder cancer two years ago, there is her father, Bob Fair, husband, Tom, and Emma’s younger sister Addison. There are also diversions, like Emma’s role as “patient partner” for the 2014 Jimmy Fund Scooper Bowl®. Emma cut the ribbon at the opening ceremonies.
Emma’s determined outlook also buoys the Tierney family. “Emma is just like her mother – she takes her illness as an inconvenience that she will get through and move on from,” says her grandfather Bob, and in some cases Emma’s younger age works in her favor. Jessica was devastated at losing her hair at age 15, and wore a wig, but this side effect doesn’t bother Emma. She often takes off the cap she wears to school, and at her first communion in May donned a bow on her near-bald head.
"My mom tells me I’m brave and strong and beautiful," says Emma. "When I started to lose my hair, she said she would shave hers too. I said ‘no way.’"
A genetic test can explain why a child or young adult developed cancer and can help predict whether he is at risk for other conditions.