A teenaged Courtney Toney had been undergoing treatment at CHOC for a rare cancer for several months when she began to hear murmurs around the oncology unit about a fancy dance to be held just for patients with cancer.
“I was so excited right when I heard about it,” she says. “I got to be one of the lucky ones to attend CHOC’s first ever oncology patient ball. And when I look back at my whole treatment, that really was one of the top memories because not only was it fun and we got to dance, but we were able to just do something that felt so normal for teenagers and it wasn’t about our treatment plan or our diagnosis.”
More than 20 years later, the event has become an annual soiree for CHOC. Now called The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation CHOC Oncology Patient Ball, the tradition provides adolescent and young adult patients with cancer an opportunity to experience the important rite of passage of a dance.
And in turn, Courtney’s enthusiasm for the ball continues: Today, she is CHOC’s senior manager of events and celebrations and serves on the ball’s planning committee, working alongside CHOC’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department to continue a tradition that meant so much to her decades ago as a cancer patient at CHOC.
“It’s a great honor to get to be a part of the CHOC team,” Courtney says. “CHOC has been a part of my life for almost a quarter of a century. Everyone in CHOC’s Child Life department and the Hyundai Cancer Institute work so hard to provide the highest quality care to patients and to provide special experiences for them – like the Oncology Ball. It’s my honor to play a small role in their efforts to make the event so wonderful.”
After an 18-month mix of chemotherapy and surgery at CHOC, Courtney’s cancer went into remission. She went on to graduate from UCLA, start a family, and launch a career in marketing and events planning.
And while Courtney always knew a clinical career was not for her, she kept in her mind the idea of one day, maybe after her three sons had grown, volunteering at CHOC.
But then one day in 2019 when browsing job listings, Courtney spotted an opening for an events manager role at CHOC.
“And it was almost like there was like confetti around, like a shining moment where I looked and I said, ‘Oh, that’s my job!’,” she says. “It pulled together my passion for events and finding ways to bring joy to the everyday with my love for CHOC and my desire to really find a way to support kids and families who are going through really, really hard medical situations.”
Now almost five years later, Courtney and her team have enhanced CHOC’s longstanding efforts to ensure that childhood is never paused by illness or injury by introducing new events like a monthly “Theme Thursday,” where patients, families and staff throughout the health system get to collectively dress and enjoy activities set to a specific theme.
Watch Courtney talk about the significance of the Oncology Ball:
She and her team have also revitalized the Kelly Lee Tarantello Gift Shop at CHOC’s hospital in Orange, by creating a boutique-like environment with enhanced merchandise and providing patients, families and staff a peaceful haven where they can browse and discover treasures nestled in every nook and cranny.
And of course, Courtney is channeling her talents, passion and her personal history into efforts to support the Oncology Ball.
“It’s just been such a joy to come back to CHOC and get to be a part of the team in a way that fits my skills and in my career,” she says. “It’s just been a dream job and I love getting to work here, and especially when I get to have projects that tie in with oncology, I definitely have a tender spot for that and to be able to come alongside our cancer families and staff and support them.”
Dancing the night away
This year’s recent oncology ball – CHOC’s 22nd – featured an “Una Buena Noche” theme, selected by patients who made many decisions about the event’s décor, activities and food. Patients danced the night away, enjoyed a mariachi band and folklórico dancers, posed for pictures and video on a pink carpet, feasted on delicious food – and most importantly, made lifelong memories.
“They need that joy. They need that moment. They need that memory. They need that community and connection,” Courtney says. “And this event really brings everyone together and provides that.”
The Ball has come a long way since Courtney and her peers attended the first event 22 years ago. Thanks to the generosity of partners like The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation and the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, the event has grown bigger and better.
The Ball celebrates the teens’ and young adults’ courageous battles and tenacity. Hospitalization or health concerns can often keep these teens from attending their own proms. Also, some teens may be self-conscious after cancer treatments that alter their appearances. This event allows everyone an opportunity to enjoy their prom in a safe, judgment-free environment.
“To get to get dressed up and feel beautiful and feel comfortable and feel normal, it was a big, big gift,” Courtney says. “And I’m so thankful that I got to be a part of the original prom years and am just so excited to see where this continues to grow because it’s such an incredible event for these patients who really, really need this gift.”
The Oncology Ball echoes CHOC’s overall patient-care philosophy: It’s an example of the pediatric health system’s many efforts to normalize the hospital environment and to allow kids to feel like kids.
Protecting childhood through leading care
The Ball is also an example of CHOC’s commitment to serve pediatric patients of all ages and provide them with the psychosocial support that they need. Pediatric cancers also impact older patients, like adolescent and young adults. The most effective way to treat pediatric cancers is with pediatric cancer protocols designed by doctors and nurses who specialize in treating those cancers. Oncologists and hospitals that normally only treat adult patients may not have the background or treatments available that teens and young adults with pediatric cancers need.
The Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC is one of the only pediatric cancer programs in the country with a dedicated program for teens and young adults. That means that because of CHOC’s groundbreaking program, when a teen or young adult is diagnosed with a pediatric type of cancer, they get treatment from two types of oncology experts: one who specializes in their type of cancer and one who specializes in the needs of adolescents and young adults.
Many of these patients find themselves at a unique crossroads: When these young adults’ lives should be full of football games; high school or college classes; dating; spending time with friends; or planning for their future; they are interrupted by cancer. The risk for depression is high in these patients, which can impact their treatment.
“It is challenging being a teenager and going through cancer because it really it can be very isolating and lonely,” Courtney says. “And it’s a hard time of life any way. When you’re a teenager or a young adult, and you really just want to feel like you belong and to not feel different and to be hanging with your friends and thinking about the future.”
To that end, The Richard C. and Virginia A. Hunsaker Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology (AYA) Child Life Program at CHOC offers a range of activities and experiences to help meet these patients’ unique needs.
One of the country’s only such programs, CHOC’s AYA Child Life Program offers weekly events for patients to connect with one another, activities within CHOC Hospital’s patient care areas to connect patients while hospital, as well as the Ball.
Courtney feels especially privileged to have been treated at CHOC during the beginnings of such a pivotal program for teens and young adults with cancer.
“I saw a lot of other kids my age feeling so alone and so forgotten and by their peers, which is just what you don’t want at that time,” she says. “ You want to feel included and connected. And so, I think that really was a big part of the catalyst for really creating programs like AYA and events like the oncology ball. It was to find ways to get connection for kids going through the life-changing journey of cancer.”