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Cooking through acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Petey Miceli endured chemotherapy and participated in clinical trials. But it was his love for cooking that helped him survive acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

At age 14, Petey Miceli is already an accomplished chef. While most teenagers are still figuring out how to avoid burning toast, he's mastered several complex dishes and even appeared as a guest chef on the Rachael Ray Show.

He's also experienced what most teenagers never face - cancer. Fueled by his love for cooking, Petey endured aggressive treatments to survive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a rare form of blood and bone marrow cancer that affects the production of white blood cells.

"Cooking is my passion," he said. "I've always enjoyed being in the kitchen, and when I got sick, cooking was an important part of my recovery."

Showing symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia

When he was younger, Petey's worries were missing his favorite cartoons and cleaning up his toys. But by his seventh birthday, a much bigger problem was cooking.

"We noticed that Petey was running a low-grade fever for quite a while," said Phyllis Miceli, Petey's mother. "At first, doctors assured us that it wasn't anything major, but Petey wasn't acting like himself."

As weeks passed, Petey's energy waned until he didn't want to play with friends or his family.

"He was getting exhausted doing the most basic things, and I knew there was something major going on," Ms. Miceli said. "We took him to Cohen Children's Medical Center to have some blood work done. We wanted to know what was wrong."

The next day, Ms. Miceli and her husband, Peter, received an urgent voice mail: "Bring Petey in as soon as possible."

In January 2011, after more tests, Petey received his diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. His Cohen Children's team helped enroll Petey in tests with the Children's Oncology Group - a clinical trials collective supported by the National Cancer Institute. His results showed that Petey's ALL was not typical.

"We're usually able to use a less intense course of chemotherapy for ALL," said Arlene Redner, MD, associate chief of oncology at Cohen Children's. "But Petey's particular type of abnormal leukemia cells didn't respond well to this protocol. We had to treat him more aggressively."

Petey's treatment for ALL

Petey's first round of chemotherapy lasted eight months, and he struggled with the side effects of the intense medications. He was being schooled at home and making regular trips to the hospital.

"He was homebound and unable to play with his friends or siblings. It really affected his mood," Ms. Miceli said. "That's about the time he discovered cooking."

Petey may not have been able to leave the house, but he could make it to the kitchen.

"Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and I remember watching my parents cook in the morning," Petey said. "One day, I asked my dad to teach me how to crack an egg. Of course, I made a big mess, but I was hooked."

Petey began watching cooking shows instead of cartoons and devoting several hours a day to learning how to cook.

"It was like therapy for him to walk down to the kitchen and make something," Ms. Miceli said. "He was losing weight fast with all the chemotherapy, so it was important to keep him interested in food and eating. Cooking helped with that."

Petey spent the next several years in and out of the hospital. His treatment changed over time, but he could always turn to his love of cooking to help him through. Doctors declared Petey cancer-free in March 2017, six years after his diagnosis.

"We've grown to love our extended family at Cohen Children's," Ms. Miceli said. "They were so helpful throughout this hard time in our lives, and I don't think we would have made it without their love and care for Petey."

Raising money for pediatric cancer

Petey hosts events to raise money for pediatric cancer research with help from his father and his father's colleagues at the Engine Company 313/Ladder 164 fire company. His most recent fundraiser raised more than $11,000.

"I want the money we raise to help kids who are going through what I went through," Petey said. "I had to spend a lot of time in the hospital, and if my efforts can help a single kid spend one less year stuck there, I'll be happy."

When he isn't helping kids with cancer, Petey attends Cathedral Preparatory School and Seminary. He has big dreams of attending culinary school and opening his own restaurant, paying forward the comfort he found in cooking.

Helping kids face cancer

Petey coped with his cancer diagnosis by turning to the kitchen. Other ways to help children face cancer include:
  • Answer all questions truthfully about the diagnosis
  • Connect with other children with cancer via support groups or hospital events
  • Find fun activities to participate in and encouraging involvement
  • Create a support system, including social workers, psychologists, and trusted family and friends
Petey beat ALL, a rare form of leukemia, at Cohen Children's.
See how our pediatric oncology specialists can help your child, too.
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