Crista forms lifelong friendship with her cancer doctor

Crista and Dr. Stegmaier pose in front of Red Sox mascot
Christa says Dr. Kim Stegmaier is "not only my oncologist, but also a terrific role model and a friend.” (Photo taken prior to COVID-19.)

It’s impossible not to notice the connection between Crista Cardillo and Dr. Kim Stegmaier. The way they laugh and swap stories might make you think they grew up down the street from one another.

But their friendship began differently than most: as patient and oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

When Crista was just 14, she was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin lymphoma — a cancer that begins in white blood cells called lymphocytes, which play a significant role in the body’s immune system against disease. The disease causes these cells to abnormally reproduce, eventually making the body less able to fight infection.

A lump leads to cancer diagnosis

Crista grew up as a competitive swimmer and even qualified for the Olympic trials in the 800-meter freestyle just three months after her diagnosis. That diagnosis came in 1999, when she first noticed something wrong: a lump on the right side of her neck.

The lump spurred a trip to Crista’s pediatrician, and during the workup, they felt it was important to schedule an appointment with a surgeon for a biopsy at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. 

“That first wait-and-observe part of my journey was one of the most difficult, although it’s all challenging,” recalls Crista.

 Two weeks later, the results of the biopsy came back: Crista had cancer. 

“I was in disbelief. I had recently started high school, and I just wanted to be normal,” says Crista. “Immediately, I went into survivor mode, reverting to that competitive mindset I had known so well as an athlete.”

Making an instant connection

Further tests revealed that the cancer had spread throughout Crista’s neck, chest, underarms, and spleen. While there was a high rate of cure for Hodgkin’s lymphoma even in 1999, her team knew they needed to be aggressive. Crista would undergo six months of chemotherapy, followed by six months of radiation, and then surgery to remove her spleen.

Crista met with various oncologists and specialists to determine who would lead her treatment plan, but never found anyone she truly connected with — until she met Dr. Stegmaier. Today, Dr. Stegmaier is the co-director of the Pediatric Hematologic Malignancy Program at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, but back in 1999 she was in her first year of fellowship.

“The moment we started talking, there was this connection,” explains Crista. “Her focus was on me as a person, and I instantly felt I could trust her.”

“She was an amazing teenager who really had her life together,” Dr. Stegmaier says. “It has been wonderful to watch her evolve into a remarkable young adult.”

As a former gymnast and ballerina, Dr. Stegmaier could relate to Crista’s commitment to her sport. Together, the two explored ways Crista could continue swimming throughout her treatment. From this shared interest, a bond formed, and the pair grew incredibly close over Crista’s first year of treatment. She even recalls Dr. Stegmaier calling their house late at night to pass on reassuring results of a test so she wouldn’t worry.

Since completing her therapy, Crista has remained cancer-free — something she credits to Dr. Stegmaier. 

“The day I met Kim was one of the most important days of my life. She was enthusiastic, caring, and explained everything,” Crista says. “It was obvious that I was a partner in my care, and she was not going to decide for me what to do. I consider Kim not only my oncologist, but also a terrific role model and a friend.”

Crista, who had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, holds her dog in her backyard
Crista and her dog, Rocco

There for the highs and lows

Dr. Stegmaier has been there to celebrate every positive milestone in Crista’s life. She’s also stepped in to help during the low points — one being the lymphoma diagnosis of Crista’s mother, Phyllis, in early 2019.

After hearing the news, Crista reached out to Dr. Stegmaier to see who she could recommend at Dana-Farber for her mother’s treatment. Ultimately, Phyllis was placed under the care of oncologist Dr. Ann S. LaCasce, of Dana-Farber’s Hematologic Oncology Treatment Center. In October 2019, Phyllis completed her treatment, and today she is in remission.

“I always knew Crista had a special relationship with her mom, and she has handled everything with amazing grace,” Dr. Stegmaier says. “It’s been a privilege to be a part of her life and still have a connection with her.”

Making a difference

Inspired by her experience, Crista went to college looking for a career in which she could give back. She interned at Boston Children’s and later volunteered at The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She is currently a candidate in the 2020 Woman of the Year philanthropic competition to support blood cancer research across the U.S. in honor of two local children who are blood cancer survivors.

She also has spent a decade of her career running large hospice organizations across the country. Today, she works for Connected Living, a company that focuses on using technology to help improve the quality of life for seniors, families, and staff in health care settings across the United States.

“Kim paved the path for me and my interest in advocacy,” says Crista. “She is truly making a difference and that inspires me.”

This post originally ran on the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s blog, Insight.

Learn more about the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

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