Anna Fleming – Partial Nephrectomy

Anna Fleming playing a string instrument in front of a waterfall

Pure excitement fills Anna Fleming’s voice when she talks about her recent travels throughout the United States this past summer and her studies at Covenant College in Georgia.

The 20-year-old elementary education major and music minor student traveled from Maine to California in the summer of 2023. But what might be more compelling is another journey – her 17-year health journey that brought her to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Sudden Illness

Anna’s health journey began when she was three and a half years old. Although she acknowledges she does not remember every detail like her parents do, some specifics stand out.

Anna Fleming in a plaid shirt standing in fornt of a wall with her arms crossedAnna remembers being sick at this early age, going to a local Emergency Department for examination, and being sent home. It was only after experiencing more severe pain, and a second trip to the Emergency Department, that a physician determined she had a softball-size tumor that had ruptured. She was then rushed to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and underwent a four-hour surgery to remove the tumor.

“After the surgery, I learned my diagnosis was embryonic rhabdomyosarcoma,” says Anna. “As a kid, I knew things were bad but didn’t fully understand the details. Although my diagnosis was terrifying for my mom and dad, they were very honest with me. I know it was much harder on them.”

Embryonic rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare form of cancer that starts in the soft tissue and expands to other areas of the body. It is more common in younger children.

“The doctors determined that the cancer had spread. I went through many rounds of chemotherapy and approximately 25 rounds of radiation therapy,” says Anna. “It did its job and got rid of what remained.”

People who have high doses of chemotherapy or radiation are at risk for other cancers. UPMC Children’s physicians closely monitored Anna’s health.

At around age six, Anna developed a chromosomal genetic mutation from the radiation which impacted her bone marrow. She was on track to contract acute myelodysplastic leukemia which would be terminal, so physicians preemptively performed a bone marrow transplant. From that point, Anna remained cancer-free for nearly 13 years.

New Diagnosis

That changed in early 2023 when during Anna’s routine follow-up, UPMC physicians noticed a mass on her kidney that was getting larger. Physicians diagnosed Anna with renal clear cell carcinoma. Physicians from UPMC Children’s and the Hillman Cancer Center recommended a partial nephrectomy for Anna. A nephrectomy is the surgical removal of all or part of a kidney, usually done to prevent the spread of cancer.

Anna Fleming with a blue and white turle stuffed animal balanced on her headMichael Ost, MD, MBA, a urologist in the division of pediatric urology, interim vice president of medical affairs, and the director of pediatric surgical outreach at UPMC Children’s performed Anna’s surgery in May 2023. He performed robotic-assisted laparoscopic surgery to remove the tumor from Anna’s kidney, preserving the large majority of the organ. This method is less invasive, requires smaller incisions, and leads to faster recovery. After the surgery, Anna followed up with Dr. Ost who shared that the surgery was successful.

“I healed faster and was able to enjoy a trip to Maine in June for a family wedding and a trip out west to take my brother back to school. I visited California, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and the Grand Canyon.”

Now more than a half-year post-surgery, Anna feels well, for which she is thankful.

Bright Future

Anna enthusiastically talks about her future plans: about becoming a first-grade teacher, playing the piano and violin at church, and the potential of becoming certified to teach music to children. She looks at her health experiences and the results as blessings from the Lord that she can share with others.

Along with the care she received at UPMC Children’s for more than 17 years, Anna gives credit to her family and faith for seeing her through her health journey. She still has follow-up care with a variety of specialists at UPMC Children’s and is beginning to transition into adult care.

“I have had an amazing journey and am blessed,” says Anna.