Leighton – A Young Athlete’s Battle against the Ultimate Opponent

Many kids today slay at both school and sports, but 7-year-old Leighton Accardo kicks it up a notch. She plays on a boys’ baseball team and juggles figure skating and club hockey – and a girls’ softball league, too. Her strength and competitive spirit will serve her well, because now she’s fighting the ultimate contender: cancer.

The third of four kids, Leighton comes from a family of passionate athletes, including her dad, Jeremy Accardo, a former MLB player and now coach with the New York Mets. She’s tough, says her mom, Carly, a preschool teacher’s assistant, but she’s also easy-going, friendly, loving and smart. “She has patience with the kids her class who are struggling; her teacher counts on her to work with them.” It was that kind of maturity and fortitude that masked some of the early symptoms associated with Leighton’s disease.

It started in May of 2019 when she experienced something many kids deal with — constipation. “Her stomach was distended, and then she started having accidents,” her mom remembers. For a time, Carly tried to solve the puzzle, thinking it was caused by a myriad of possible issues. She kept Leighton home from school at times but for the most part, Leighton continued to plow through games and practices as she always had; but then, Carly decided to seek care at a nearby hospital. A CT scan revealed something no parent ever expects — masses throughout her abdomen. The news came on a day Carly won’t ever forget — Mother’s Day.

“A good friend told me I had to get Leighton to Phoenix Children’s, and we got her transferred immediately,” she said. It was Cynthia Wetmore, MD, Division Chief at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Phoenix Children’s that gently shared the news with her family. Leighton had Germ cell tumors. These tend to originate in the ovaries for girls, in Leighton’s case, had spread to her abdomen, liver and lungs, and often respond well to treatment.

“It was the worst feeling in the world to hear your child has cancer. I was hearing all these words you think are never going to happen to your child, and you think the worst. But Dr. Wetmore told us they can treat these kinds of tumors. I asked her, ‘you mean Leighton’s going to live?’”

Community support that’s a cut above

With a large, busy brood the Accardos know how to multi-task. Immediately following her diagnoses, friends and community members stepped forward to offer their support, including athletes from professional and college teams in Arizona. They knew Leighton’s treatment would cause her hair to fall out, so they decided to be proactive and shave her hair ahead of time on her terms. Leighton’s friends showed interest in cutting their hair off too in solidarity, so they organized an event after a baseball game at Espee Park. On May 28th, hundreds of people, including her many teammates and friends, gathered in support.

“She knew her friends from her girls’ teams would come, but the boys’ baseball team and her brother’s teams came out too,” said Carly. ABC 15 even covered the event. “Leighton got tired, but she loved having all the support,” Carly says. Her husband’s friends in the Major Leagues have also stepped up with many shows of support – several of the players lacing “Beads of Courage” into their cleats. The program started at Phoenix Children’s more than 15 years ago, each bead a symbol of courage that mark the milestones of a journey with cancer.

Family-centered care scores a homerun

With that, Leighton’s chemotherapy treatment was off to the races, and Carly shares that her care at Phoenix Children’s has been comprehensive and compassionate. “There were so many doctors, nurses and social workers that helped us understand what was happening to Leighton, and the Child Life specialists helped her to understand. “They’re the most amazing people in the world,” Carly says. Leighton’s care plan involves shrinking the tumors to manageable sizes in preparation for surgery in early August 2019.

Leighton herself has found ways to cope and pass the hours spent receiving treatment at the Hospital. She loves visiting the Zone – or what’s known as the “happiest place in the Hospital” – where patients are invited to play air hockey, basketball, Trivia and video games or ham it up on the sound-stage. She’s also a frequent flyer at the Center’s playroom where she makes endless crafts.

Leighton has completed four rounds of chemotherapy at the Hospital, and Carly is returning to work shortly at the beginning of the school year. Leighton will have to miss school for a couple months as she undergoes surgery and recovery, so teachers at the Hospital’s 1 Darn Cool School with work with her own teachers to help her keep pace as she is able.

Carly says throughout Leighton’s journey, their tribe of family and friends has ensured their daughter always has someone at her side at the Hospital, and the rest of her brood doesn’t miss out on any of their activities. “All I have to do is make one call and someone is ready to take my kids overnight,” she says. With her husband frequently on the road, she says it can be frustrating for him not to be here to help comfort Leighton. How does she keep it all going?

“My kids, and all of our support. We’re an active family, and Leighton has always been good at her sports. This is just one more thing she has to be good at – fighting cancer.”