Five years after completing neuroblastoma treatment at St. Jude, Lucas dreams of a life by the sea

The boy from Chile returned to the research hospital for a medical check-up — a crucial moment for him and his family.

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Lucas was excited, yet calm. He felt things were going to work out OK. His mother, Daniela, was excited too, but worried about what was to come.  

The flight from Chile to Memphis was more than 12 hours with a layover in Dallas. They had been to Memphis several times in the past, but this trip was different. 

If all went as hoped, their journey to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital® would end with a huge sigh of relief and prayers of thanks. Lucas was just 3 years old when he arrived at St. Jude to receive cancer treatment. This visit, however, marked more than five years of being cancer-free — a milestone in cancer remission. 

This anniversary also meant he would move to the St. Jude After Completion of Therapy (ACT), the clinic specializing in long-term follow-up for patients who suffered from childhood cancer. 

“I don't want to get ahead of myself, it's clearly a long-awaited moment and we pray to God to allow our beloved Lucas to reach it,” Daniela said a few days before their arrival.  

Lucas and his Mom

The days were cold when they arrived at St. Jude on a Sunday in March 2023.  In Santiago, the capital of Chile, they were enjoying the start of autumn with sunny days and mild weather in the 70s and 80s. 

But Lucas was content because he was visiting his second home, as he often describes the specialty research hospital. He was going to see doctors and other staff who had been with him throughout his treatment. His happiness was so great that undergoing medical examinations, some that required needle pinches and blood draws, did not dampen his joy. 

“Some things are painful, and some others are not, but in the end, everything is [fun] here," he said. 

Daniela, though, was cautiously optimistic. She could not help but think of all the days, nearly two years, spent at St. Jude living through one treatment after the next. During those days, she prayed that her little boy, her only son, would survive the high-dose chemotherapy, proton radiation, surgery, antibodies and a bone marrow transplant with all its aftereffects.  

Once he completed treatment and they returned home, her prayers centered on his well-being and that the cancer would stay away. 

“There is always a share of concern, which we obviously try to camouflage a bit," Daniela said. “But God is always great and accompanies us on this path and on this journey. And we always come with a lot of hope and with a lot of faith.” 

At home, Lucas was thriving, a boy who lived life to the fullest. He was in school. He had recently received the “all-around student” award. He was friendly, sociable and athletic. After school, he played soccer and football and enjoyed fishing. He was an avid skier and sailor, steering his own single-sail vessel. He has made many friends who are fellow sailors. 

Sailing has been a sport practiced by his family for decades. Both his father and grandfather own boats named after St. Jude. One boat is named “St. Jude” and the other, “Memphis.” 

Lucas is always ready to sail, a sport that allows him to feel the wind, breathe the sea air and feel the heat of the sun on his skin while taking in the ocean views. 

“My goal is to keep sailing and keep having a good time,” Lucas said. “I like navigating a lot because it gives me a lot of time with nature, and it is very entertaining.” 

Sailing was on his mind as he walked into his doctors’ appointments at St. Jude at this five-year mark. He had been feeling back aches after long days of sailing.  While he headed into his medical appointments, he wondered about his future exploring the ocean. Would he still be able to sail? Compete?  

An alarming diagnosis 

At. Jude patient Lucas, brain cancer

Lucas was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma after experiencing severe stomach pain and vomiting. Neuroblastoma is a type of cancerous tumor that almost always affects children. Neuroblastoma tumors generally develop in the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys. But neuroblastoma can also begin in or spread to other areas including the chest, the spine or spinal cord regions and the abdomen.

Tests showed that tumors within Lucas' abdomen had spread to his spinal cord. The prognosis was poor. 

“It was news that you never expect,” said Daniela. "The pain is indescribable, it's like one is paralyzed.”

Doctors in Chile referred Lucas to St. Jude, about 5,000 miles from Santiago.  

Daniela and her husband, Carlos, had never been to the United States. They had planned to visit for the first time and had even bought tickets to take Lucas and his older sister, Sofia, to Disney World in Florida. But the cancer diagnosis scrapped those plans and the couple’s focus turned to Lucas and getting him to Memphis as quickly as possible.

When she arrived at the hospital, Daniela remembered feeling comfort right away. She met doctors who told her they would do all they could to save her son. She was certain they would.  

Through every new treatment, Daniela said, doctors kept her, and her husband, informed and encouraged them during tough times. She said she’s grateful to nurses, staff and donors who continue to help children like Lucas.

“Every time the road becomes difficult, and one is stumbling, the best memories I have is that there were always angels here in the halls of St. Jude who took you by the arm and made you keep walking,” she said.  

A future at sea

More than five years later, Daniela and Lucas found themselves walking the halls of St. Jude again. The last time they had been to Memphis was about a year-and-a-half earlier for Lucas’ annual checkup. The first day was filled with appointments that included a blood screening and scans. 

They made sure to stop by the chapel on the second day, one of their favorite places on the St. Jude campus, to say their prayers, to give their thanks.

By the second day of tests and medical appointments, Daniela was optimistic after being told that one exam they expected Lucas to undergo was canceled because all the previous tests and scans had turned out well. Doctors also checked Lucas’ back.  

When they met with Lucas’ lead doctor, he told them that there were no signs of cancer. They hugged, overwhelmed by the words spoken.

“I gave him my thanks for his dedication during such a long time of treatment,” Daniela said. The doctor also gave Lucas the OK to keep sailing.  Lucas was already planning to participate in his second regatta on his return home.  

“One of the things that worried me that I asked the doctor, is if I could sail and he said there would be no problem, and that is what I wanted to ask him,” he said. 

Daniela said Lucas, who is now 10, has been pushing for more independence.  

"It was like a step towards greater freedom for him, and to be able to show that he already has the capacity and strength to move on,” she said.

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