Zachary (Zach) Witt: Overcoming Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma Thanks to the Lung Cancer Drug Crizotinib
A message from John and Pam Witt, Zach’s parents
Our son Zach was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma when he was just 5 years old. He relapsed before he had completed his initial treatment—a year of standard chemotherapy—and seemed to be getting sicker every day. But then he received a new kind of drug, one that was targeted to his cancer, and within a few days we saw a dramatic change: We got our boy back. He is now living life like any normal 9-year-old—going to school, playing baseball, and riding his bicycle—and there is no doubt in our minds that without cancer research Zach would not be here today.
Right up to the time of Zach’s diagnosis in September 2010, we had no clue that anything was wrong. It all happened very suddenly. One day John lifted Zach up and Zach complained that the ‘bump’ under his arm hurt. We looked and saw a pretty good-sized lump in his armpit. The next day, we took him to the pediatrician, who sent Zach for blood tests right away. That evening, we went to the E [emergency room] and were relieved when the test results came back normal.
However, a few days later our pediatrician called and said he was still concerned and wanted us to take Zach to an oncologist for further tests. We took him to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and within a few days we received the diagnosis. It was a huge shock to us. We could barely believe it was happening.
Almost immediately, Zach started the standard treatment for children with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, which was chemotherapy for a year. The chemotherapy made him really sick, and he was in and out of CHOP for months with fevers and low blood cell counts. But his cancer seemed to be responding.
Then, even though he was still on treatment, Zach started getting flu-like symptoms and fevers again. On a day that seemed to match our feelings exactly—it was a cloudy, dreary March day—Zach’s relapse was confirmed.
We had a meeting with the doctors at CHOP to discuss Zach’s treatment options. One option was more aggressive chemotherapy. We couldn’t imagine how that was possible having seen how sick the initial chemotherapy had made Zach. The other option was a clinical trial. The doctors told us that a genetic test they had run on a cancerous lymph node removed during Zach’s initial diagnosis had shown that his cancer was ALK-positive. The clinical trial they talked about was testing a drug that targeted ALK (crizotinib, which was FDA-approved in August 2011 to treat certain patients with lung cancer), and they were looking to enroll children with ALK-positive cancers in the trial.
Pam was fearful of enrolling Zach in the clinical trial, but John could hear the optimism in the doctors’ voices as they talked about the trial. Pam was finally won over after she asked one of the doctors, “If this were your child, what would you do?” and he immediately replied that he would enroll his child in the study.
It took a few days before Zach could begin treatment with crizotinib, and at this point he was so tired he couldn’t get out of bed to go to the playroom in the hospital. Just three days after starting crizotinib, in April 2011, he ran down the hallway to the playroom. We couldn’t believe it was the same kid.
Zach still takes crizotinib twice a day and has checkups once a month. But the tests and scans show no sign of disease, and he is back to being the high-octane boy he was before his diagnosis. When we meet new people and tell them Zach is a cancer patient, they can’t believe it. He really is living the normal life of a 9-year-old, and that is why we tell his story.
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