It was a bold request. A high school senior living outside Toledo named Abby Hawk begged to get a tattoo for her 18th birthday. Most moms would be appalled, but hers loved the idea. Near the surgical scars on her ribs, Abby wanted to tattoo the latitude and longitude coordinates of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and this inspiring message: “The comeback is always stronger than the setback.”
In 2005, when Abby was just under 2, she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer of the nervous system. Abby’s case was severe. It was stage IV and had spread to her lungs, pelvis, and abdomen. After starting chemotherapy at a hospital close to home, doctors informed Abby’s mother, Kim, that the tumors were inoperable. Kim went into what she calls “mega-mom mode.”
“I thought, ‘If you can’t do surgery, I’ll find someone who will,’” she recalls. “I focused on finding the best surgeon. Before I came across MSK, I had no idea it even existed.”
A moment with her daughter’s oncologist provided all the encouragement she needed to book a flight to New York.
“He came in one morning after telling us that they were unable to do surgery. I said, ‘I think we need to go to MSK.’ He said, ‘That’s what I was going to tell you.’”
“When they’re in the operating room, they’re my kid.”
Because she faced cancer before she could even speak in full sentences, Abby does not remember any of it. Her parents have told her more and more as she’s grown up. Sometimes, Abby has a hard time believing it.
“Part of me is like, wow, that’s amazing that I could do that, and part of me is sad that I had to go through it,” she says, calling us from her college dorm. “But from what I’ve heard, my doctors and nurses were all amazing.”
Kim, on the other hand, could tell you every detail of the experience, especially the relief she felt upon coming to MSK and meeting pediatric surgeon Michael LaQuaglia. He had been at MSK since 1987, searching for ways to improve neuroblastoma survival rates; they were practically zero at the time.
“Years ago, we didn’t know if you needed surgery, radiation, or something else,” Dr. LaQuaglia says. “A lot of our work at MSK has been about understanding the biology of each tumor and how it behaves.”
A father himself, Dr. LaQuaglia knew the enormous trust that the Hawk family placed in his hands.
“It doesn’t matter if the kid is 20 years or 2 months,” he says. “When they’re in the operating room, they’re my kid.”
A Portfolio of Techniques
Decades of collaboration with teams across MSK – beyond its five neuroblastoma oncologists and three surgeons – have led to paradigm-shifting treatments for neuroblastoma, Dr. LaQuaglia says.
“We developed techniques from neurosurgeons and vascular surgeons so that we have a portfolio of ways to approach these tumors,” he says. “And in doing that, we found that a lot of these tumors that we had thought couldn’t be removed via surgery actually could be.”
Abby’s first surgery at MSK was to remove the tumors in her abdomen and pelvis. She had chemotherapy after that, and then a second surgery to remove the tumor sitting on her lung. After recovering, Abby and her family returned home to Ohio. Abby needed a stem cell transplant that required six weeks in the hospital, and they wanted to be closer to home.
It’s been 16 years since Kim has spoken to Dr. LaQuaglia, but that’s just how he likes it; take care of the child and then send them back to their life. Still, Abby knows what she’d say if their paths ever crossed again.
“Just thank you,” she says.
Taking on the World
Abby has had some long-term effects from cancer treatment, such as slower growth and digestive issues. But she manages them and doesn’t let them rule her life, saying, “I am who I am.”
A straight-A student and valedictorian of her high school class, Abby got into her dream college, the University of Findlay. Despite issues with her balance, she made the school’s cheerleading team. Cheering keeps her in the moment and not worrying what other people think. “I like being able to participate in something where I’m just myself,” she says.
Proud mom Kim knows how much making the team meant to her daughter.
“If you talk to Abby, she’ll tell you that getting accepted to the University of Findlay’s cheer squad was her biggest accomplishment – not surviving cancer or being valedictorian,” Kim says.
Abby celebrated her triumphant end to high school in another meaningful way: She participated in MSK Kids’ annual convocation ceremony, which brings together graduating seniors from across the country who were treated at MSK.
Looking to the Future
Now starting college, Abby intends to study diagnostic medical sonography.
“I want to work in pediatrics because I want to help kids just like me,” she says. “And I always liked getting ultrasounds because it’s quiet and actually relaxing.”
Dr. LaQuaglia says that Abby’s personal story will be an asset when she starts her career in medicine.
“Someone like Abby, who has had experience being a patient, will have a deeper understanding of what other kids are going through,” he says.
Making Her Mark
“MSK saved my life,” says Abby, explaining her unusual 18th birthday request. “I wouldn’t even be getting a tattoo or going to college without them. I came up with the quote and thought it’d be cool to have the latitude and longitude of MSK with it.”
Kim was amazed that her daughter wanted to pay homage to her time at MSK.
“Instead of not wanting to think about it, she wanted to remember the wonderful place that had done this wonderful thing,” she says. “As soon as she told me, I started bawling and said, ‘Yes, you absolutely can do that.’”
Their gratitude is indelible.