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A medical mystery: Why two Philly-area cousins, just miles apart, got rare brain cancers

Wendy Ruderman, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Parenting News

PHILADELPHIA -- Lily Walker, 17, was in eighth grade when she suddenly lost weight and suffered headaches so severe she’d throw up. Her mom thought it was stress, or maybe a virus. After the double vision set in, a doctor told the family to head to an emergency room.

Her cousin, Peter Cellucci, then 7, stopped eating two years later. He suddenly needed to grip the banister with both hands to walk down the stairs at school. When he could no longer step into the bathtub without losing his balance, a doctor also told his parents to take him to a hospital ER.

Lily and Peter’s mothers are second cousins living 17 miles apart in the Philadelphia suburbs. Since December 2020, their families have shared a journey that has tested the limits of medical understanding, as well as their shared Catholic faith.

Each morning, Lily swallows a chemo pill to tame an inoperable brain tumor. Every three months, Peter gets an MRI scan of his head and spine to make sure the lime-sized brain tumor hasn’t grown back.

Pediatric cancer is rare. Malignant brain tumors in kids are even rarer. The cousins are simultaneously in treatment for two different, though equally aggressive, types of brain cancer at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The day after Peter’s diagnosis, his mom said she found a quiet space in the hospital and commiserated with Lily’s mom over the phone.

 

“I remember saying, ‘What the hell is happening?’” recalled Tricia Cellucci, whose mom is a first cousin to Megan Walker’s dad. “‘How is this even possible?’”

A medical mystery

Doctors are unable to explain why this happened to one family. Only one in roughly 182,500 children in the United States are diagnosed each year with Lily’s tumor type and grade and one in about 150,000 for Peter’s.

That means that out of all 850,000 school-aged kids in the eight-county Philadelphia region, only about 10 will be diagnosed with either Lily’s or Peter’s type of brain cancer in any given year.

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