The 68th annual KDKA UPMC Children's Hospital Free Care Fund Benefit Show is this Thursday, Dec. 16.

By: KDKA-TV News Staff

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The 68th annual KDKA UPMC Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund Benefit Show is this Thursday, Dec. 16, and this week we’re featuring patients who’ve benefitted from the care they received at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

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Julie Carmassi, who goes by the nickname “Juju,” is a fun-loving 4-year-old girl.

“She’s determined, she’s strong-willed, we call her “Sassy” Carmassi. We called her that since she was about a year old because she’s got an attitude,” said Juju’s mom, Kathryn Carmassi.

(Photo Credit: Provided)

Kathryn says it’s that attitude that’s giving “Juju” the fight she needs to battle stage four high-risk neuroblastoma. In January of this year, Kathryn says “Juju” started feeling run down. Her belly hurt, and she was having trouble walking. After nearly three weeks of tests, Kathryn and her husband David got the news that changed everything.

“It’s kind of like what they show in movies or TV where they say your child has cancer and everything stops and goes quiet and you can’t breathe. We just sat there on a couch on the eighth floor of Children’s and cried,” said Kathryn.

Doctors found a tumor in Juju’s abdomen. They started chemotherapy just a few days later with months of treatments since.

“She calls it the bad guy in her belly. She definitely knows she has cancer,” said Juju’s dad, David Carmassi.

“The treatment for these kids who have metastatic disease includes chemo for about four to six months, followed by two stem cell transplants, radiation therapy and then immunotherapy for about another six months,” said Dr. Randy Windriech, the Clinical Director of the Division of Blood and Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapies at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Windreich performed both of Juju’s successful bone marrow transplants and has a special place in her heart.

Kathryn: “Who’s one of your favorite doctors?”
Juju: “Dr. Randy.”

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Dr. Windreich says neuroblastoma is found in only 8-10% of childhood cancer cases and is seen primarily in young kids.

“During cell growth, something goes wrong, and that mistake gets replicated and copied over and over again and causes tumors and cancer,” said Dr. Windreich.

The road to recovery has been a challenge for the Carmassi family, especially for Juju’s older brother, 7-year-old Jonny.

“They’re really close. The separations have been very hard,” said Kathryn. “He’s like her anchor, and with COVID rules, siblings can’t visit.”

However, the Carmassi family is keeping their heads up, hoping their little girl will beat this and offering these words of encouragement to other parents in a similar situation.

“Don’t give up hope. Lean on people who are offering to help because lots of people want to help and don’t know how,” said Kathryn. “To see where she’s come from and to see how bad it was and to see where she is now, we have no reason to think she won’t win.”

Winning is something Juju is determined to do one step at a time.

Dr. Winreich says Juju’s last scans show she’s now cancer-free, but they’re going to continue to monitor her. He says stage four high-risk neuroblastoma has a 60-70% survival rate and while there’s a high risk of relapse, he says he remains hopeful for Juju.

Juju and countless other children are alive today, because of the care they received at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. And the Free Care Fund at UPMC Children’s has helped so many families afford that medical care over the years.

Please help us keep that fund going! Click here to learn how to donate to the Free Care Fund.

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Join us this Thursday, Dec. 16, beginning at 4 p.m. for the 68th annual KDKA Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund Benefit Show.