In 2006, Gigi Quiroz was the first-ever patient to receive ophthalmic artery chemosurgery (OAC) to treat retinoblastoma, a pediatric eye cancer. As a result, she was able to maintain vision in both eyes, which was practically unheard of at the time. When the Chief of MSK’s Ophthalmic Oncology Service, David Abramson, saw how quickly and efficiently OAC got rid of Gigi’s cancer, he knew he had a life-changing treatment on his hands. Thanks to Gigi, the vast majority of MSK patients with retinoblastoma now receive OAC — and get to keep their eyesight.
- Gigi Quiroz was not even two years old when she was diagnosed with retinoblastoma.
- The standard procedure at the time would have been to remove Gigi’s eye.
- She and her family came to MSK so she could receive an experimental treatment called OAC — and it had incredible results.
- OAC worked so well that it is now the standard for children with retinoblastoma at MSK.
At just 18 months old, Gigi Quiroz was completely incapable of grasping the impact she would have on pediatric cancer treatment.
It was 2006 and Gigi’s uncle had noticed something unusual in the little girl’s eye. A local pediatrician told the family, who lives in the Bronx, to take her to an eye specialist.
While they were waiting for the specialist, Gigi’s mom, Edeleyne, sensed a problem.
“There were doctors coming in and out, not saying anything,” she recalls. “I knew something was wrong.”
After the specialist saw her, the head of the clinic came in: Gigi might have a rare pediatric eye cancer called retinoblastoma, she said. They were going to make her an appointment at MSK with David Abramson, a world-renowned retinoblastoma specialist. Edeleyne was scared, but she knew she was going to the right place.
“Before I went, I read all his reviews,” she recalls. “I knew he was the best doctor. I knew I couldn’t be in better hands.”
A Frightening Diagnosis
On a Thursday in May, Dr. Abramson diagnosed Gigi with retinoblastoma. Edeleyne says she will never forget the day.
“It was like our world was going to end,” she recalls. “My husband passed out. We were living in a nightmare.”
In order to figure out what treatment would suit her best, Gigi underwent tests to see how far her cancer had spread. Dr. Abramson found it in both eyes, but thankfully, it had not spread to her brain.
Dr. Abramson said one option would be that he and his team could remove one of Gigi’s eyes, which was the standard treatment at the time. But when that plan didn’t sit well with the young girl’s family, Dr. Abramson offered another idea. He and his colleagues had recently gotten approval for a new type of treatment they pioneered called ophthalmic artery chemosurgery (OAC), in which chemotherapy is injected directly into a blood vessel that leads to the eye. With this method, the medicine goes right where it’s needed.
“It’s the difference between putting chlorine on your skin and putting it in a swimming pool and asking you to swim in it,” he says. “We’re putting it right where the cancer is, rather than far away with the hope that it gets up there.”
The treatment had only been available for one week when Gigi’s circumstance presented. “We got the approval and almost immediately she was the first patient to qualify,” Dr. Abramson recalls.
Edeleyne and her husband had an important decision to make. But they were thrilled to even have a new option.
“I discussed it with my husband and said, ‘Let’s try it,’” she recalls. “We didn’t want to take her eye out just like that if we had the opportunity to try a treatment. I was really optimistic that it was going to work.”
A Revolutionary Treatment
The family decided to move forward with OAC. Gigi would first undergo radiation to wipe out some of the cancer beforehand. The doctors told Edeleyne that Gigi could lose her hair, but she wasn’t deterred.
“I said, ‘That’s the least important thing right now,’” she recalls.
As Gigi began radiation, MSK’s Pediatrics Department became a safe haven for the family. Edeleyne recalls meeting people in Dr. Abramson’s waiting room who had come from around the world to see the renowned surgeon. And Gigi became close with a child life specialist who accompanied her to all of her MRI appointments.
“Gigi felt so comfortable with her,” Edeleyne remembers.
With a full head of hair, Gigi underwent the country’s first OAC procedure on May 30, 2006.
When she came back three weeks later for a follow-up exam, Dr. Abramson didn’t know what to expect. There was the possibility that the treatment didn’t work, or that Gigi would have side effects. She was placed under anesthesia and her images were projected onto a screen in the operating room so that fellows and residents could see what Dr. Abramson was doing while he examined her. What he and everyone else saw was nothing short of astounding.
“Her eye was three-quarters filled with cancer [before OAC], and three weeks later it was almost completely gone,” he says. “It was that dramatic and obvious. We had accomplished with [less than] a teaspoon of chemo what we had not been able to accomplish for years with intravenous therapy.”
Gigi’s parents were astonished, Dr. Abramson recalls. “When I showed them the photographs they were in tears.”
A New Standard of Care
The treatment worked so beautifully that Dr. Abramson began using it more regularly. Since then he’s performed OAC 1,700 times. It remains the standard of care for children with retinoblastoma at MSK. The procedure has improved as well; children who now receive it no longer need radiation beforehand.
It used to be that 95 percent of children with retinoblastoma had their affected eyes removed. Now, 95 percent of those children get to keep their eyes.
“It’s a complete reversal of what it was,” Dr. Abramson says. “I said to a resident, ‘You’re not going to see that every day in cancer, to go from 95 percent failure to 95 percent success.’ Most treatments boost you up a few percentage points and that’s considered a great success.”
As for Gigi, she’s now a healthy 12-year-old girl who loves to dance and gets straight A’s in school. She checks in with Dr. Abramson twice a year and gets an annual MRI. She has had zero complications as a result of her cancer, and her only memory of the entire ordeal is the MRI machine she used to frequent on the 11th floor of Memorial Hospital.
Dr. Abramson has big dreams for his superstar patient, who couldn’t even speak when he first met her.
“She’s grown into a beautiful, talkative, tall young woman,” Dr. Abramson says. “Whatever she does in the future, I hope she too will have the opportunity to do something for children that has never been done before.”