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Mareesa Boyatzies and Katie Foster

Cousins Battle Cancer Together 

Katie, Mareesa, and Miracle Kid Courtney WagnerAs new high school freshmen, cousins Mareesa Boyatzies and Katie Foster expected to share stories of new friends, classes, and extra-curricular activities. Never did the best friends imagine they would soon share a pediatric oncology team.

In August 2011, 14-year-old Mareesa, a student at Wayne High School in Ontario, approached her mother, Leanne Boyatzies, with the concern that her left armpit looked swollen in comparison to the right. She also noticed swelling around her collarbone. A visit to her local pediatrician concluded that Mareesa’s lymph nodes looked abnormally large, but the needle biopsy showed nothing irregular. Mareesa, who felt fine, continued to play soccer and go on with her life as she normally would.

After about two months of various blood tests, a chest x-ray came back showing signs of lymphoma. On Nov. 10, 2011, Mareesa was diagnosed with Stage 2A, non-symptomatic, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She had cancer in her left armpit, chest, and her esophagus.  

As Mareesa’s aunt, Lisa Foster, was trying to come to terms with her niece’s diagnosis, she would soon learn her own daughter would be going into the same battle.

In mid-September 2011, Katie Foster, a student at School of the Arts, had been experiencing extreme back pain. She noticed her ribs were starting to pop out and her spine was beginning to curve. An avid dancer, Katie assumed it was a dance-related injury. Following her pediatrician’s advice, she began physical therapy. As therapy went on, however, Katie’s back flexibility decreased and the pain increased. X-rays showed a large mass in Katie’s spine and pleural effusion, or excess fluid, on her left lung. On Nov. 11, 2011, Katie was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer. The cousins were diagnosed less than 24 hours apart.

“We were actually coming into the emergency department for Katie when Mareesa was supposed to have already had her CT scan,” Lisa said. “Appointments were running behind and we had no idea we were there at the same time. I didn’t want to call any of our family yet because of what they were going through with Mareesa, so I waited until the next morning to call Leanne. No one could believe it.”

The girls’ oncology team had never seen anything like it before. “At a time when two young girls were beginning an exciting part of their lives they were faced with decisions like if they would want a broviac catheter or an implanted port catheter,” said David Korones, M.D., Mareesa’s pediatric oncologist.  “As much as they were defying the odds, it was heartbreaking to see a family going through so much.”

The whole idea of having cancer seemed surreal to the girls. “I really didn’t process any of it until after the fact, when it was all happening and I would go into treatment it was kind of just what was normal at that time,” Mareesa said.

Katie and Mareesa with Dr. KoronesThe types of cancer the girls had were very different. Mareesa completed four rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Katie’s cancer was stronger, making her fight with the disease more intense, with 13 rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. “I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be – how much pain I was going to be in or how many side effects I would have,” Katie said. “We never heard Katie complain or say it wasn’t fair,” Korones said. “She was just bound and determined to get better.”

During the girls’ first round of chemotherapy, children’s hospital staff made sure they could be roommates. “It was nice to have someone to talk to that you were already close with and understood exactly what you were going through,” Katie said.  After losing their hair together and even sharing timing for fevers, Katie’s mom would joke that the girls would have to find another way to spend time together.

When the cousins had a tough day, their Golisano Children’s Hospital oncology team would come to the rescue. Denise Casey, M.D., who has since moved away, was Katie’s primary oncologist. “Our doctors were always there for us,” Katie said. “And not just to talk about ‘doctor’ stuff, they would talk about anything and answer any kind of questions we had.”

Both families felt their situations became much more bearable because of the kindness and compassion of the hospital staff and other patients. “When we got to the hospital, everyone welcomed us into their family,” Leanne said. “In addition to the care we received from the oncology team, we wouldn’t have been able to get through it without the constant support from the nurses, social workers, child life crew, and everyone on 4-3600,” Lisa said. “They were our lifeline.”

While Mareesa has been cancer free, Katie, recognized as a 2014 Miracle Kid, had her cancer return in March. 

Mareesa, Katie and friends at promBoth girls, however, have had the chance to return to their athletic passions. This past fall, Mareesa was back on the soccer field and is now playing lacrosse for the spring. Prior to learning that her cancer was back, Katie was able to perform several numbers in her school's dance recital, including a special solo performance focused on overcoming obstacles. 

Inspirations to the community, Mareesa and Katie have been active in Golisano Children’s Hospital events, including Hyundai’s Hope on Wheels grant announcement, the first children’s hospital prom, and volunteering at this year’s Telethon.

As juniors in high school, the cousins now have a greater bond than ever before. “We never thought in a million years that two of our babies would have cancer at the same time,” Leanne said. “They will, for the rest of their lives, share this experience together and I’m sure never forget it.”