Francesca Arnaudo — "Miracle girl"
By the age of 10, Francesca Arnaudo already had survived two cancer diagnoses – osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, and acute myeloid leukemia, a white blood cell malignancy – along with surgeries and months of chemotherapy and radiation. She pulled through with flying colors, cheer and tenacity, earning the nickname “miracle girl” from the UC Davis Cancer Center nurses.
Francesca went on to become the California representative in the 2007 Champions Across America tour, an awareness campaign for Children’s Miracle Network. The national philanthropy operates in 170 hospitals, including UC Davis Children’s Hospital. The tour took Francesca and 49 other champions to the White House for a press conference and then to Disney World for the taping of a television show. She was also a Hyundai Hope on Wheels “Spokes-Kid” for 2006 and 2007.
“Even though I lost out on a lot of my childhood, it made me more aware of who I am, and realize that I want to help others because of what I went through.”
— Francesca Arnaudo, three-time cancer survivor
One would think the child, now 13, had worn enough hospital gowns to last anyone’s lifetime. But in March 2009, Francesca’s doctors found a black dot on her lung, which turned out to be malignant. Fortunately, said Mary Arnaudo, her mother, it was discovered early, thanks to all the routine follow-ups. When surgeons removed the upper right lobe, “they found it was another type of cancer not related to any of the other ones I’ve had,” Francesca said.
Not only was it a new cancer, but one that rarely appears in younger patients.
“Her particular lung lesion — bronchioalveolar carcinoma-like lesion — is better known to adult oncologists,” said Douglas Taylor, associate professor of pediatrics and Francesca’s oncologist. “In this case, the treatment was simplified by early detection and an excellent resection.”
Early detection helped spare Francesca chemotherapy and radiation therapy. After surgery, with strengthening exercises, Francesca said she got the hang of “breathing a little bit more in my left lung.”
But her ordeal didn’t end there. In December, she needed surgery to repair the prosthesis in her right humerus.
“In 2003, when they put the [original] prosthetic in it was the best there was,” Mary Arnaudo said. “But the part in her bone that supported [the prosthesis] had loosened; it acted like a pendulum and wore the bone away from inside. They found another piece to fit on the bottom of the prosthetic, and packed the bone with cadaver chips. This is a better piece, a better fit.”
For the procedure, surgeons Robert Szabo and Robert Tamurian employed a cutting-edge technology used in orthopaedic oncology and limb-salvage reconstruction.
“The relatively new prosthesis utilizes static compression to induce her remaining bone to get stronger and ‘grow’ into the prosthesis, which we hope will provide life-long fixation,” Tamurian explained. “No bone cement is required, and the technique is well suited [for] reconstructive problems where there is very short bone segment left with which to work.” (Tamurian has used this prosthesis now for a number of patients who he said have all been pleased with the results).
The procedure involved hollowing out the bone in the same way one might hollow out an eggshell, and rendering it just as fragile. Thankfully, the bone is healing well, and Francesca’s attitude is — as always — even better. She’s student body president and earns straight A’s, is active in hip-hop and tap (her teacher modifies the more strenuous moves, so that she can protect her arm), and she still loves to draw. In August, she is excited to become a freshman at Ripon High School.
“She doesn’t let anything stop her,” Mary said with admiration. “The other day there was a function at school — you can imagine how ugly the scar is, what with so many surgeries in the same place — and one lady said, ‘Well, bless her heart, she’s my hero; I would never wear a sleeveless dress!’ ”
The scars don’t bother the teen. “It’s God’s molding of me,” Francesca said. “Even though I lost out on a lot of my childhood, it made me more aware of who I am, and realize that I want to help others because of what I went through.”