Childhood Cancer Survivor Aiden Duong in Rams Spotlight
Sep 09, 2022 Victoria Pelham
Flanked by his dad and his wheeled IV pole, Aiden Duong took his first, shaky steps down Cedars-Sinai's long pediatric cancer wing, his hospital gown matching his tiny bright blue sneakers.
The 1-year-old, in treatment for liver cancer, spent weeks at a time receiving chemotherapy and recovering from infections caused by a weakened immune system. But he couldn't wait to get out of his hospital bed. Soon after teetering down the hallway, the active toddler was racing past nurses' stations, smiling ear to ear—even when he fell. Sometimes his parents packed him into a wagon and carted him to new areas.
"You do what you have to do where you are, under whatever circumstances you have," says his mom, Nancy Duong.
"Clinical trials offer cutting-edge treatments not otherwise available that make a difference for your child and also help other children in the future."
Now cancer-free for more than a decade, 12-year-old Aiden is channeling that momentum to keep pushing his—and the community's—health forward. Aiden earned the honor of becoming Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children's health correspondent for the Los Angeles Rams' "Kid Reporter" video series during the 2022-23 season, airing segments on the video board at select home games, including during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.
An avid athlete, Aiden learned how his favorite football players stay in shape, from their diets to bench presses. Physical activity boosts length and quality of life for childhood cancer survivors, especially cardiovascular health. He was also a Coin Toss Captain at the 2019 Rams "Crucial Catch" game, supporting early cancer detection.
"I want other kids to know it will be OK," he says, "and that you can still be your own person even though you had cancer."
At Aiden's 10-month checkup, his pediatrician noticed that his liver felt slightly low.
He was immediately sent for an ultrasound and referred to Dr. Fataneh Majlessipour, now director of pediatric hematology-oncology at Cedars-Sinai. She conducted a series of diagnostic exams, including measuring alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) load, a hepatoblastoma tumor marker.
Healthy levels are less than 9 nanograms per milliliter. Aiden's was nearly 122,400.
An abdominal MRI and biopsy confirmed a tumor the size of an orange.
Almost exclusively affecting children younger than 3 years old, the liver cancer forms in fetal or embryonic tissue. Children born underweight or with genetic conditions—including Beckwith-Wiedemann and Aicardi syndromes or glycogen storage disorders—are at higher risk.
While rare—making up just 1% of childhood cancers—hepatoblastoma is the main type of pediatric liver tumor, and it is on the rise. About 50 to 70 cases are diagnosed each year, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization.
Depending on its size, hepatoblastoma can cause a mass or abdominal swelling, leading to pain, discomfort, loss of appetite, weight loss and nausea. Patients might also experience fatigue, itchy skin, fevers, inflamed veins and yellowing skin and eyes.
Aiden, though, was eating, sleeping and playing normally.
"The diagnosis was a complete shock," Nancy says.
His parents had to power through their panic.
"It couldn't be debilitating," she emphasizes. "He needed us to stay strong."
Aiden's tumor was stage 3 and involved both lobes, with the potential to spread to other organs. It was too large to be surgically removed without affecting function.
Dr. Majlessipour enrolled Aiden into a Children's Oncology Group clinical trial that strengthened the standard chemotherapy regimen to improve survival in advanced hepatoblastoma patients. The regimen added a powerful drug, doxorubicin, to the cocktail of cisplatin, fluorouracil and vincristine. Doxorubicin had successfully treated liver cancer in the past but was typically ruled out because of side effects.
Clinical trials like these offer "cutting-edge treatments not otherwise available that make a difference for your child and also help other children in the future," she notes.
Dr. Majlessipour stresses that the trials are thoroughly vetted and have allowed survivorship to soar to more than 80%. She recommends everyone ask their doctor about available studies and to seriously consider participating.
Aiden completed two rounds of intense chemotherapy over six weeks. His tumor shrank to nearly half the size, and his AFP level plummeted to 183—clearing him for a complete liver tumor resection.
In May 2011, he underwent surgery removing the cancer and some surrounding liver tissue. Afterward, he received four more chemotherapy infusions to ensure all traces were gone.
The strong treatments caused hair loss, as well as vomiting and fevers. Cisplatin permanently affected Aiden's high-frequency hearing, a common side effect for 25% to 90% of children who take the drug.
Despite these struggles, he always bounced back and hit new milestones.
"It was very hard to see him go through this so young, but at the same time, it was amazing how resilient he was," Dr. Majlessipour recalls.
"He drove us to stay positive, because he was such an easygoing, cheerful kid," Nancy agrees. "We had to do the same for him that he was doing for us."
Safety in a support system
At 18 months, Aiden went into remission.
Over the years, his doctors have fitted Aiden with a hearing aid and continue to monitor him for the risk of cancer return and other treatment-related complications such as heart disease.
The Duongs view Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Cancer Center as a second home and say the close-knit, welcoming team has made an often-scary journey less daunting.
"Seeing the same smiling faces over and over helps Aiden feel comfortable and block out the uncomfortable stuff he has to do," Nancy says.
Aiden says he can speak with his doctors about things that he can't with other people, because they know him so well and understand what he's been through.
"He's grown up in front of our eyes," Dr. Majlessipour says.
Nancy encourages families facing pediatric cancer to not lose hope. Find a strong support system like Aiden's that "you know will be there for your child every step of the way," she says.
Still on the go
Now a seventh grader at Arroyo Seco Junior High School, Aiden has moved on to the basketball court. He's played the guard position for the San Fernando Guardians community team and its coach, Vince, since he was 5.
"It's a really fun, fast-paced activity, and I've made a lot of close friends," Aiden says.
Aiden also plays football, runs, and competes with his best friend, Lucas, in sports and video games.
"I wake up every day, and I make the most of it," Aiden says. "I'm always happy because I get to be here—living normally just like everyone else."