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North Branch family takes chance on immunotherapy, saving daughter's life

Family tries immunotherapy to treat daughter's cancer, to great success
Family tries immunotherapy to treat daughter's cancer, to great success 04:28

NORTH BRANCH, Minn. — A North Branch mom and dad are beyond grateful that they took a chance that saved their precious baby girl's life.

The family's home has some decor they never could have imagined. Gold and orange ribbons represent childhood cancer awareness, and now that symbol represents them.

"Yes, you've heard about childhood cancer but once you become part of that world, you don't realize how often a child gets diagnosed," Ely's mother Diana Plasencia said.


But their sweet, little Ely was diagnosed last winter at just 4 months old after a never-ending cold and a bruise on her face that just kept growing.

"I was like, we gotta take her in because I don't think this is — there has to be something else wrong with her," Diana Plasencia said.

The local hospital sent them to M Health Fairview Masonic Children's Hospital. Their baby was in critical condition and her diagnosis was shocking.

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"I cried. That's the first thing I did, I just started crying," Diana Plasencia said. "But then in a weird way I kind of felt calm. Because I was like, OK, if it's cancer that she has, we're going to get through this as a family. Because we're very united, very spiritual."

"I was crushed," Juan Plasencia, Ely's father, said. "Because at the time, yeah, we know childhood cancer, but you don't know it fully until it's — I guess I could say I was unaware of it to the extent. So when I heard cancer I just thought the worst."

It was a condition that is surprising. There are only about 90 diagnoses of leukemia a year to kids as young as Ely.

"There's so many complicated factors when children are diagnosed that young and such high risk for toxicity, for infection, for complication," said Dr. Lucie Turcotte at M Health Fairview.

Turcotte recommended chemotherapy. Risky, especially at her size. But then word came of a more targeted therapy.

"There was some newer data published that showed that adding a certain type of immunotherapy called blinatumomab to the standard treatment improved outcomes fairly dramatically," Turcotte said. "Even though Ely was already started in the treatment regimen that we had chosen, it felt like we couldn't not try this for her."

They decided to go all in on what would be an arduous journey.

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Because of her immune system, Ely was in the hospital for nine months. She toted a backpack with $40,000 worth of medicine as she was learning to walk. Her agility paid off. It worked.

Ely, who is now almost 2, is exceeding expectations.

"She's doing everything she should be and more and she's got siblings at home that she is trying to keep up with and she's all over the place when she's in clinic. So, it's great," Turcotte said.

"We are lucky that she's still around," Diana Plasencia said.

Ely is already a conqueror and she's only just begun. She's hitting all of her milestones. She still takes oral chemo and goes to Masonic once a month.

Ely's parents say no one is more excited to have her home than her 10- and 12-year-old sisters.

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