Diagnosed at 4 months, Georgia toddler is now a cancer survivor

Lauren Panter of Fayetteville says she will never forget the day her family's lives changed in early summer 2022.

"It was Monday, June 6," Panter says. "I remember every detail of that day."

Lauren and Steve Panter's youngest of four children, Piper, was four months old.

Piper Panter of Fayetteville, Georgia, was diagnosed with cancer when she was just 4 months old. (Credit: Lauren Panter)

"Piper woke up that morning, and she had a fever, and she had just been very off for about a week. Fussier than normal," Panther says.

Piper had not been eating normally for weeks. Yet, instead of being underweight, her belly was swollen, so much so that her belly button had suddenly popped out that morning.

When the pediatrician felt Piper's abdomen, she immediately ordered an x-ray.

That is when things began to unravel.

"She told me that on the x-ray they found a mass," Lauren Panter remembers. "They weren't sure what it was, but that I needed to take her to CHOA."

Children's Hospital of Atlanta (FOX 5 Atlanta)

The Panthers met at the emergency department at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

"They took us right back, and they did more x-rays," Panter says. "They did [an] ultrasound."

Close to midnight, Steve Panter says the ER doctor came in with test results, and she looked stricken.

"I could tell she had been crying," Steve Panter says. "And, that was the first time I thought that 'Oh, man, whatever she's about to tell us, this isn't good.' And, she just cut to it and said, 'It's cancer.' And, I will never forget that feeling. My heart dropped."

Piper was diagnosed with bilateral neuroblastoma, the most common solid tumor cancer in children. She had two large masses and multiple smaller ones in her liver and both adrenal glands.  

There was also cancer in her bone marrow.

The immediate concern was Piper's liver, which was twice the size it should be because of the masses.

It was pushing against Piper's lungs, restricting her breathing.

Piper Panter of Fayetteville, Georgia, was diagnosed with cancer when she was just 4 months old. (Credit: Lauren Panter)

Children's Healthcare oncologist and hematologist Dr. Karen Wasilewski-Masker says that pressure on the lungs can be life-threatening if left untreated.

"Because babies are little, and their lungs are little, and their liver gets big, then they can't breathe," Dr. Wasilewski-Masker says. "So, they wind up … they wind up developing respiratory problems and respiratory failure."

Four days after her diagnosis, Piper began chemotherapy to try to shrink the cancer.

"It was a living nightmare, is what it was," Steve Panter says. "You can't help but think, you know, is she going to make it if she can pull through this?"

But, Piper's cancer responded to the medication, and Wasilewski-Masker says her prognosis is very good.

"We usually stop treatment when they've had greater than 50% shrinkage in their masses," Dr. Wasilewski-Masker says. "So, she was given four cycles of chemotherapy. After that, again, she still has or had [residual] disease, but it's at the point it usually goes away on its own or matures to a non-cancerous form."

Piper Panter of Fayetteville, Georgia, was diagnosed with cancer when she was just 4 months old. (Credit: Lauren Panter)

Piper is now 19 months old, and nearly a year out from her final chemotherapy cycle.

"We are not completely out of the woods yet," Lauren Panter says. "She is still, her tumors are gone, but she still does have active cancer cells in her adrenal glands and her liver."

She will be monitored with scans and labs every few months.

But, to Piper's parents, every milestone feels like a gift.

"Every time I get to see her, her first word, she just started walking, her first steps, and then seeing her and her siblings, it's just a big celebration," Steve Panter says.