Avery Paananen, an ice cream–loving 3-year-old from Cumberland, R.I., was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in February 2021, after her parents, Matti and Liz, noticed some bruising and a hard lump on the back of her head. Her pediatrician observed petechiae, tiny red dots that appear on skin as a result of low platelet numbers, at Avery’s two-year physical and ordered bloodwork. When the results came back, Avery and Liz were immediately sent to the hospital, where Avery was admitted to begin 37 days of ALL treatments with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Melissa Burns, MD. Liz recalls this being an especially hard time because she was newly pregnant and her husband, Matti, had to find out this shocking news over the phone due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions. “When I found out I heard static. My whole world stopped,” shares Liz. “Matti and I switched out every night so that we could be with Avery and also be present for the rest of our children.”
Avery’s current treatment protocol follows a three-week cycle. Matti and Liz have decided to be open and honest with her about her diagnosis and treatment protocols, though there are aspects of her disease that she doesn’t fully understand due to her young age. She visits Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund Clinic every Monday for chemotherapy and bloodwork, where she is so excited to visit her “best friends,” Jenny and Amanda, her child life specialists who help make sure she and other patients can remain kids and have fun while in treatment. She receives steroid treatments every third week, which Liz counts as the worst part of her current treatment regimen. “Avery has no control over her emotions, so it’s the worst week for us every three weeks,” Liz shares. “You must learn to let go and take everything day by day.” Though the treatment protocols are rigorous, Liz is grateful for resources such as music therapy, which always lift Avery’s spirits and put a smile on her face throughout her in-patient stays or clinic visits.
Liz and Matti are looking forward to the day when Avery’s treatment plan is complete in about two years, so that she can finally be “a kid again” like her siblings. In the meantime, one classic kid activity the whole family is looking forward to is this year’s Jimmy Fund Scooper Bowl® presented by Valvoline Instant Oil ChangeSM, where Avery will be recognized as the event’s patient partner. She and her three siblings—all huge ice cream fans—will enjoy some of their favorite sweet treat, vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, at this all-you-can-eat ice cream festival hosted at Patriot Place in Foxborough, Mass.
The Paananen family is grateful for the quality of care that they receive from Dr. Burns and Anna Lefebvre, Avery’s pediatric nurse practitioner to whom the family has grown very close—care which is possible thanks to funds raised through programs like Jimmy Fund Scooper Bowl.
“I owe every Dana-Farber supporter and Avery’s entire care team my life,” Liz says. “I will never be able to thank them enough for all that they’re doing to save my child’s life each and every day.”
Support patients like Avery and her family by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.