FEATURE | Posted Dec. 17, 2014

Zoey's sweet success

Cancer Center helps young patient celebrate the end of treatment

Zoey Vega
Zoey Vega

Her lips smeared with pink frosting, four-year-old Zoey Vega is all smiles with a giant cupcake at her “End of Therapy” party. Here with her mom and dad and her cancer care team, she celebrates the end of five months of chemotherapy treatment at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The brainchild of pediatric cancer specialist Anjali Pawar, Zoey’s and all End of Therapy celebrations are made possible through a partnership with Keaton Raphael Memorial (KRM).

Pawar, who came to UC Davis in 2012, participated in a similar program at Michigan State University. Knowing how much the events meant to the families, Pawar wanted to carry on the tradition at UC Davis. She said the party is not simply a chance for the children to eat cake and open gifts, but becomes an important emotional experience for the parents.

“The parents are so used to continuously coming in and out of the center for procedures, lab work and scans that they get jaded,” said Pawar. “By the time we tell them their child is done with treatment, it doesn’t sink in. But when they step into the room and see the banner and the cake, that’s when they realize that it’s really over.”

The parties give the children a sense of accomplishment, as well, said Ashley Budak, a medical assistant who works with KRM to organize the events.

“It’s exciting for them,” she said. “A lot of them feel like it’s a punishment to have to be here, so the party becomes like a goal for them to work toward. It boosts them up and definitely helps with the situation that they’re in.”

The physicians and other caregivers in pediatric oncology also look forward to the celebrations.

“The day we have to tell the parents that their child has cancer is the hardest day in their life,” said pediatric oncologist Jo Chung. “So, when it’s over, and we get to celebrate with them, it’s one happy memory that they get to have here.”

KRM partners with local community members and organizations to provide special treats such as cupcakes, cake or pizza to fulfill each child’s preferences. The youngsters also receive customized gifts during their celebration. For Zoey, it was blond cupcakes with pink frosting topped with rainbow sprinkles and activities with her favorite “princess” theme.

“We feel privileged to share in this wonderful ‘End of Therapy’ program,” said KRM CEO Teresa Hofhenke. “It is such a positive experience for all involved, especially the families, who have battled through a long journey.”  

Keaton Raphael Memorial was established in 1998 following the death of five-year old Keaton after his courageous, nine-month battle with neuroblastoma.  The Roseville-based organization serves children and families battling cancer throughout Northern California, including those at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. KRM has raised more than $4 million to support pediatric cancer research, and has sponsored End of Therapy events since 2013.