When Joseph Campione was born, his parents adoringly held their first child – a healthy, six-pounder with a head of beautiful black hair – full of the pride parents enjoy as they imagine their child’s future.
A mere two weeks later, Joseph’s path took off in a direction for which no parent is prepared. A small growth on his bottom that was present at birth and had been thought to be benign, was diagnosed as rhabdomyosarcoma, an extremely rare form of muscle cancer.
“I remember hearing the words, ‘your son has cancer,’ like it was yesterday,” Meghan recalls. “Nothing could have prepared me for that. Just two weeks earlier, I had given birth to a strong, beautiful boy. Now I knew I had also given birth to a boy who had a 50 percent chance of surviving until his fifth birthday. “
While Meghan and her husband Chris were still absorbing the news, they also had to make decisions. Joseph’s body was growing normally – and quickly – and his cancer was growing rapidly as well. His doctors in Alexandria, Virginia, began his treatment regimen with chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. The family traveled to a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, for Joseph’s surgery to have the remainder of the tumor removed.
After the chemotherapy and surgery, test results revealed microscopic amounts of cancer remained. The Campiones were told Joseph would need radiation therapy.
“We knew that radiation was a necessity,” Meghan said. “But we were concerned because he was so small and the area they had to radiate would be large. We didn’t know how that would impact his body.”
Joseph’s oncologist suggested proton therapy as a viable treatment option. As he researched, Chris learned about proton therapy and its ability to precisely target and treat tumors near or within sensitive organs while limiting radiation exposure to healthy tissues. This is vital in children whose bodies are still growing and developing.
The family chose the MD Anderson Proton Therapy for Joseph’s treatment. He was only 8 months old when he began underwent daily proton therapy sessions, making him the youngest patient to receive treatment at the center at that time.
“In general, we want to avoid radiation treatment for very young babies because of the potential damage and long-term effects it can cause, but Joseph’s case, there was really no other option,” explains Dr. Anita Mahajan, professor of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson. “With proton therapy, we are able to target the treatment directly to cancerous cells and limit exposure to surrounding, developing areas – critical when treating children, especially babies like Joseph, with radiation.”
The Campiones trusted the hospital’s reputation as a leader in cancer treatment and care, and they were comforted by how well Joseph endured his treatment.
“He was about as normal as an 8 month old would be,” Meghan remembers. “He was happy and engaged. He was achieving the normal developmental milestones and handling the treatments beautifully.”
The Campiones spent two months in Houston for the proton therapy treatments in the mornings and enjoyed afternoons with their baby at nearby parks and the zoo.
Their “baby” not only survived beyond his fifth birthday, but he’s thrived. Now in elementary school, Joseph is a big brother to the Campiones’ two other children. Joseph’s mom describes him as “a real character.”
“When he and Maggie play doctor, he talks about going into the MRI machine and pressure cups – his playing doctor is pretty advanced,” she says with a laugh. “But he’s healthy and inquisitive. He loves music and he’s an explorer. He’s always up for anything and just enjoys being happy and sharing that with other people.”