Three-Time Pediatric ALL Survivor Branches Out Into Adulthood

July 16, 2021

Her home is filled with plants, inside and out, but one holds special significance for Tara Daniels. A visitor could easily miss it amongst its more grandiose neighbors, but to her it serves as a reminder of the most challenging period of her life — and how she got through it.

Back in 2016, the tip of this little Kalanchoe plant was the only flora still alive when Daniels, then 25, returned from nine months of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). She found this funny, since it was also the only plant that had not been grown fulltime in water during her absence.

Perhaps, Daniels wondered, it was a sign.

Tara Daniels.

Like her, the little Kalanchoe was down but not out. And as she has nursed it back to full health several times since, it has come to symbolize Daniels’ own resilience as a three-time cancer survivor. Even when she is knocked to the ground by ALL, as she was at age 16, 20, and 24, she’s always thinking about how she’s going to rise and bloom again. Her care team at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, she says, helps give her that confidence.

“That plant is still thriving, and so am I,” says Daniels.  

Graduating to good health

Daniels was a high school junior when she started getting winded while climbing stairs. She figured it was just her asthma acting up, and only assuaged her mother’s concerns by visiting a doctor after finishing her first day of midterms. Abnormal blood tests prompted a referral to Boston Children’s Hospital, where her first ALL diagnosis was confirmed in January 2009.

A cancer of the white blood cells, ALL is the most common form of pediatric leukemia. It accounts for roughly 80 percent of all leukemias in children and teens in the United States, and 90 percent of those treated with a standard two-year chemotherapy protocol go into event-free remission. 

After completing treatment in the Jimmy Fund Clinic at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, Daniels figured she was one of them. She graduated high school with her class and moved on to Stonehill College.

Then, in July 2012, after completing her sophomore year at Stonehill, she felt a lump in her neck. This prompted a doctor’s visit, and testing. It was the beginning of an ALL recurrence, and Daniels had to complete the first semester of her junior year online while starting another two-year protocol as an inpatient at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.

By this point she had been assigned a new oncologist — Jonathan Marron, MD, MPH — and the pair quickly developed a close relationship. Close enough, in fact, for Daniels to speak up when she heard the  proposed care plan for the first two months of her spring semester: two weeks on campus, and two weeks in the hospital.

“Dr. Marron was integral in arranging it so that I could live on-campus full-time and receive treatment there,” says Daniels. “He not only listened to me, but also valued my opinion and took it to heart.”

Tara Daniels with her oncologist Jonathan Marron, MD, MPH.

Daniels was still in active treatment and weakened by pneumonia at her Stonehill graduation in June 2014, so Marron and her clinical team worked with school administrators to put safety measures in place — including front-row seats for her family, and a security guard on call — that enabled her to walk across the stage and receive her diploma.

Remissions and transitions 

By her second recurrence in 2016, Daniels admits, she had let her guard down. She had a great job, an apartment with friends, and was thriving in her mid-20s alongside her new plant collection. She never imagined ALL could strike again, and when it did, it unnerved her. So did the new treatment protocol, which would include a stem cell transplant, radiation, and months of isolation separated from friends while living back home with her parents.

She was now 24, older than most Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s patients, but Daniels decided to stay with the same treatment team rather than switch to an adult care team at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. Marron, who has extensive experience treating patients as they transition into adulthood, provided her with an important sense of continuity and confidence. He still does.

“Tara taught — and to this day, continues to teach — me a great deal about resilience, flexibility, and perseverance,” says Marron. “I’ve been really lucky to get to know and care for Tara throughout the ups and downs of her cancer journey. I love hearing about her newest professional accomplishments, and seeing pictures of her pets and family, as together we look ahead to the rest of her life. She’s a role model to so many for what she’s been able to achieve under truly inconceivable circumstances.”

In her typical upbeat fashion, Daniels tries to focus on positives gleaned from her third cancer experience. The stem cell transplant prepared her for the strict isolation rules of COVID-19, while her recovery period post-transplant allowed for more one-on-one time with her mother, Angela. Going through radiation for the first time provided knowledge she could share with her father, Donald, when he required radiation after a brain tumor diagnosis in 2018. Even with COVID, she was able to spend quality time with him before he passed in November 2020.

Today Daniels is enjoying life with her boyfriend, their two dogs, and her ever-growing plant kingdom.

And nearly five years since her last recurrence, she feels in a giving mood.

“I’ve probably cut off and given away more than 10 pieces of that one original plant that survived,” says Daniels. “The way I look at it, it’s sort of like giving back, just like my bone marrow donor did for me.”

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