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Mom’s ‘gut feeling’ leads to daughter’s cancer diagnosis, treatment at UC Davis

When Dianna Cooley’s daughter, Peyton, began having recurring low-grade fevers in July 2019, they made multiple trips to the local urgent care near their home in Roseville. Cooley was told her daughter had an infection and was sent home with antibiotics.

“I kept giving her the medicine, but the fevers were not going away,” Cooley said. “I began noticing bruises on her legs and she looked really pale. My mom ‘gut feeling’ told me something was really wrong.”

Peyton playing with toys on a desk
Peyton Cooley at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

This sassy, spirited girl who had endless energy was just not herself, so her mom took the then 3-year-old into the clinic again and insisted on a blood test. When the results came back, Cooley was told to take Peyton to the local emergency room immediately.

Cooley was panicked. She had thought it might be cancer but hoped she was just overreacting.

“The tests showed Peyton had extremely elevated white blood cells,” Cooley recalled. “The next thing I knew we were on our way to UC Davis.”

A frightening diagnosis, a trusted provider

The official diagnosis came once she arrived at UC Davis Children’s HospitalAcute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Leukemia may affect red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

“As a parent, you’re freaking out and you don’t know what to do,” Cooley said. “But I knew about UC Davis’ amazing reputation, so I was very grateful we were there.”

UC Davis Children’s Hospital is Sacramento’s only nationally ranked, comprehensive hospital for children, offering subspecialty and critical care, including pediatric oncology. Peyton was admitted to the children’s hospital and started chemotherapy treatment.

Peyton’s treatment journey

Peyton spent two weeks in the hospital before transitioning to outpatient treatment at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of only 72 cancer centers in the United States designated as a “comprehensive” cancer center by the National Cancer Institute.  

Young child in a hospital bed sleeping
Peyton is hospitalized and then begins chemotherapy treatment.

“Our center is also a member of Children’s Oncology Group, an international consortium treating children with cancer,” said pediatric oncologist Anjali Pawar. “We provide state-of-the-art care delivered by a wonderful multidisciplinary team.”

Cooley credits that team for helping both her and Peyton adjust to their new routine, which included lengthy visits to the cancer center for chemotherapy treatments.

“When we first got to UC Davis, Peyton was really scared, “Cooley said. “But we had awesome support from everyone at the pediatric infusion center. They really helped me, too.”

Thanks to the expert and compassionate care, Cooley says it was not long before Peyton was back to her energetic, rambunctious self, even during grueling treatments.

“Regardless of how rigorous her journey was, Peyton was always a little ray of sunshine,” said child life specialist Mackenzi Lee. “Her big and vibrant personality filled the infusion room every time she walked in.”

Hairless child playing with a hairless doll sitting on a hospital bed
Peyton kisses her special American Girl doll who also lost her hair.

It wasn’t surprising to Lee when Peyton began to speak up and shape her own experience. 

“Going through cancer treatment is not easy, especially for a young child who cannot fully understand what is happening with their body and why they need medicine,” Lee said. “But Peyton was direct with her questions, highly observant of her environment and never hesitated to express exactly what she needed, whether it was coping items for her port access or toys to play with during her appointment.”

Through two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy treatment and follow-up appointments, Lee, whom Peyton affectionately called “Kenzi”, became one of Peyton’s favorite people.

“Peyton loves Mackenzi. She still asks about her constantly,” Cooley said. “Mackenzi really helped us both get through it.”

Dianna Cooley and Mackenzi Lee with Peyton between them
Peyton, mom Dianna and Child Life Specialist, Mackenzie Lee.

Confidence abounds

Peyton is now 7 years old. She’s been cancer free for two years and is in second grade. She is a bundle of joy who loves art and is not shy about telling people about her journey.

“Peyton continues to be a sprightly little girl and I am glad she has good memories of her experience,” Pawar said. “I am proud of how she and her mom handled the challenges.”

“She likes people to know that she had cancer,” Cooley chuckled. “Peyton’s a very strong girl who speaks up for herself.”

Dianna and Peyton dressed in holiday clothes
Peyton and her mom, Dianna, have a lot to celebrate.

Cooley takes cues from her daughter and doesn’t hesitate to share her experience as well. ‌

“I love how my daughter was treated,” Cooley said. “Peyton did wonderfully and I could not be happier or more confident in the level of care at UC Davis.”