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Léa Legault

'We cannot accept that acute myeloid leukemia kills one patient out of three'

Four years ago, Léa Legault was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia – and was in the hospital fighting for her life. Today the eight-year-old is taking piano lessons, thriving in grade two, enrolled in gymnastics - and is cancer-free.

She’s fit enough to do anything a normal eight-year-old girl does,” says her father, Jean-Francois Legault, based in Montreal. “We’re really living a normal life again, and that’s just great!”

It all began in December 2012, when Léa began complaining of persistent pain in her legs and bones. Her parents took her to the doctor, who noticed the little girl was pale. A complete blood count was ordered – and it was obvious to physicians something was wrong.

The results shocked the family, which also includes Legault’s partner Stéphanie Roy and their son Théo, then two.  

“As soon as [our doctor] got the results she told us to go to Sainte-Justine’s where they have a pediatric cancer centre and to pack some bags because we would be investigating for quite some time,” says Legault.

Days later, in January 2013, Léa was officially diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Unlike other types of leukemia that have fairly high cure rates, AML’s prognosis is still very grim for certain AML subtypes. Further, Léa’s disease subtype (multi-lineage leukemia) is one of the most aggressive forms.

“Doctors told us that the prognosis for Léa was around 50 per cent… It was probably the worst meeting I have ever had in my life,” Legault says. “It was scary, and [at the time] we didn’t realize how sad it was because we were so focused on the fear.”

Léa’s story is a complicated one. Over the past three years, the youngster has undergone two stem cell transplants (one from her younger brother at Sainte-Justine’s and one from her mother at St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis), two six-month isolation stints in the hospital for countless rounds of chemotherapy, a serious graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) side-effect that cost her 20 to 30 per cent of her lung capacity, and an eventual remission and relapse in 2014.

But Léa’s story is also one of hope and courage. After going into remission for a second time last year she is still cancer-free, and her lung capacity is greatly improved. Her immune system is now considered normal, and she is so healthy her routine medical appointments in both Memphis and at St. Justine’s have decreased in frequency. 

“We think Léa is very strong and in very good shape,” says Legault. “She’s a very, very special girl. I mean, I’m fully biased but I still think she’s amazing.”

TFRI-funded pediatric leukemia researcher Dr. Sonia Cellot is one of Léa’s main doctors at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal. On average, one in 3 children will not survive this “very aggressive cancer”, Dr. Cellot says, which is one of the reasons she chose to study AML.

Dr. Cellot calls the Legault family “exceptional and inspiring.” They are in turn grateful their doctor has dedicated her career to advancing AML research.

“The research that Dr. Cellot is doing is tailored to help better predict the chances and risk of relapse, which is also part of our story,” Legault says, noting how important research on rare and aggressive cancers such as AML is for both current and future patients.

“The overall prognosis for pediatric AML is at best 70 per cent. We cannot accept that AML kills one patient out of three. There’s no way that can be good enough.”

Léa and her family are now focused on moving forward, and spending as much time together as they can. They recently went on a Disney cruise with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, where Léa fulfilled her dream of swimming with the dolphins.

“It wasn’t a relaxing trip, but the kids loved it,” Legault says, laughing. “Things are going great for us – and that’s a big achievement.” 

Lea Legault

Léa swims with the dolphins on a family trip in 2016.