At just five years old, Zack Hunter is many things — a beloved son, a little brother to three siblings, a kindergarten student and a cancer survivor.
“He wasn’t showing any signs of illness until the morning of January 4, 2014, when we discovered he was urinating blood and had a fever,” said Sherry, Zack’s mother. “My husband Bryan and I frantically rushed him to the closest hospital in Seguin.”
X-rays revealed a large mass had overtaken Zack’s right kidney, possibly more. “The doctors told us they were not equipped to treat him, but they knew CHRISTUS Children’s was,” Sherry said.
Zack was transported to CHRISTUS Children’s, where he was immediately admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit and introduced to the pediatric hematology/oncology medical staff. Scans of his abdomen and chest revealed that Zack was suffering from a massive tumor of his right kidney that had grown through his liver and into his heart.
Dr. Barry Cofer, surgeon-in-chief and head of pediatric surgery, and Dr. Muhammad A. Mumtaz, head of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery, were consulted to review his case and suggest a course of treatment.
“It was clear when we reviewed his studies that Zack’s tumor could not safely be removed primarily,” said Dr. Cofer. “We recommended a neoadjuvant approach where he would be treated initially with chemotherapy to allow the tumor to shrink in size and make the risks of his surgery more acceptable.”
Four-year-old Zack underwent his first surgery to have a port-a-cath inserted into his chest and a biopsy taken of his tumor. He was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT) of the kidney, a rare, highly aggressive childhood cancer.
“The Worst Prognosis”
“We were informed upfront that AT/RT was the worst prognosis of all renal cancers and that 80 percent of patients develop metastasis early, meaning that it could spread to his blood, bones, lungs or brain. The overall survival rate of this diagnosis is low,” said Sherry.
Zack went through regular inpatient chemo stays and long drives twice a week, back and forth between home in McQueeney and San Antonio for clinic visits.
“The hospital became a second home to us. The nurses were excellent and not only cared for Zack, but taught us how to care for a child who has cancer,” Sherry said. “It was like learning to be parents all over again. We were educated on how to administer injections at home and what symptoms to look for when an immune system falls out after chemo.”
His Only Chance of Survival
After several cycles of chemotherapy, Zack’s scans showed the tumor to be decreasing slightly in size but not to the degree that his doctors had hoped. Since complete surgical removal was Zack’s only chance at survival, multiple discussions were carried out by the medical and surgical teams. They decided to proceed with surgery.
On April 9, Zack underwent a major, 12-hour surgery led by Drs. Cofer and Mumtaz with a team of more than 10 additional pediatric specialists, including anesthesiologists, surgeons, radiologists, cardiopulmonary perfusionists, and an experienced team of nurses and surgical technicians.
The surgeons removed Zack’s right kidney as well as the tumor that had extended into his heart, which required open heart surgery and reconstruction of the major veins to his liver and heart.
“Zack’s resilience is incredible.”
“Zack was dealing with a very difficult, rare tumor. While chemotherapy is essential in treating this kind of tumor, complete surgical removal is necessary for survival,” said Dr. Cofer.
He continues: “Many physicians and surgeons will never see a case like this during their career. This is just one instance that proves the value of a freestanding academic children’s hospital like CHRISTUS Children’s. With our multidisciplinary approach to treatment, led by an experienced and talented medical team, we were able to pull from our resources and work together to get it done. Zack’s resilience is incredible.”
Zack endured 10 rounds of chemo, 11 days of aggressive radiation therapy, over 430 injections, 20 blood transfusions, 10 platelet transfusions and 86 days inpatient in the hospital.
“End of treatment scans showed amazing results. His remaining kidney has grown to do the work that two kidneys would do and is functioning at 100 percent,” said Sherry. “There is no new growth, and his heart looks healthy and strong.”
Today, Zack is bright, happy and thriving and was declared cancer-free as of October 17, 2014. He is back to running, climbing and having fun.
“Zack was so brave and strong through this whole experience. We are so grateful CHRISTUS Children’s was there for us when we needed it the most. Thanks to great medical care and lots of love and prayers, we got through it,” said Sherry. “We are so blessed. They’ve given us the chance to see our son grow up. God has big plans for Zack.”