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12th May 2015

How a 10-month-old beat a rare cancer

Instead of planning her daughter’s first birthday, Raakhee Mirchandani thought about her funeral. Satya, her cherub-cheeked 10-month-old, had just been diagnosed with cancer.

Satya Devi Singh – whose name translates to “Truth Goddess Lion” – was a happy, calm baby. As her mother, Raakhee, remembers, she was “a gorgeous scrappy little thing, just bones, big, beautiful eyes, and an impressive head of hair.”  But when Satya was around 6 months old, Raakhee felt in her gut that something was off, even though her daughter showed no symptoms. The pediatrician ordered a urine test, and Satya was rushed to the emergency room three days later.

Nurses performed blood work, a blood pressure and temperature check, and inserted a urine catheter and two IV ports. It was amidst this tangle of wires and tubes, dressed in a baby hospital gown, that Satya sat up for the first time. Raakhee remembers quickly taking a photo of the milestone. “My baby was due for surgery the next day — she had an infection that needed to be treated for a month with hardcore IV antibiotics — and it was hard to get excited about anything,” she recalls.

The surgery went well, and a few days later, Satya returned home. She had a port dangling from her chest, secured with Velcro fastenings, thick plastic dressings and surgical tape. Raakhee and her husband, Agan, administered Satya’s IV medications twice daily. After a few weeks, the infection cleared, but Satya’s lymph node looked unusual.

When over a month passed and the lymph node was still there, Satya’s team of doctors ordered an MRI. The results showed a tumor sitting between her kidney and aorta, dangerously close to her heart. “The doctors never said cancer,” says Raakhee, “I guess they didn’t have to.”

Raakhee, Agan, and Satya prepared for Satya’s second surgery. The hope was that the surgeon could do the whole procedure laparoscopically, removing the peach pit-sized tumor through Satya’s belly button. Raakhee remembers seeing the doctor emerge from the operating room after nearly six hours. “He looked like he had just come from battle,” she recalls. “He was sweaty, exhausted and needed to sit and catch his breath before he could talk to us.” The surgery was a great success, and every visible part of the tumor had been removed from Satya’s body without a single incision.

Satya recovered quickly, and by day three post-surgery, she was smiling, sitting up, and playing with her toys. But before they could leave the hospital, Satya needed an MIBG, a three-day procedure that scanned her body for any remaining neuroblastoma cells. Satya needed to stay very still for the scan, and the fiery 10-month-old resisted being restrained.

Finally, Raakhee lay on the radiology machine herself and placed Satya on top of her chest. She sang in her daughter’s ear to soothe her as the technician began the scan. “Within minutes, Satya and I were asleep,” she says. “It sounds strange, but it was the most relaxed I had felt in months.” After the scan, Satya was declared cancer-free.

Now more than eight months after the surgery, Raakhee says that their wounds still feel raw. She worries when Satya has a cough or cold, and often feels her belly in search of a tumor. “My daughter couldn’t be healthier: walking, talking and throwing full-blown toddler tantrums,” says Raakhee. “But when people ask how my ‘little girl’ is, I can’t help but think that she’s already a woman — fierce, strong and impressive, a witness to life’s complexities, and triumphant against all odds. I suppose in the end, it’s just like the Indian national motto says: Satyamev Jayate. The truth alone shall prevail.”