Today, Jack Bell is a 13-year-old 8th grader. He’s the second of four siblings, and he’s a generally happy kid. While he doesn’t remember much about it, he is also a childhood cancer survivor. Along with Jack, there are more than 400,000 childhood cancer survivors in the United States, and that number is growing. Over the past 40 years, cancer death rates in children have declined 70 percent. However, with cancer still the leading cause of death from disease among people under age 19, a childhood cancer diagnosis is difficult for the entire family.
“It was not a good time. It really wasn’t,” says Rachel Bell, Jack’s mom, remembering his diagnosis. It was late December 2007. She was expecting her third child in a couple of months and preparing for New Year’s Eve guests, but when Jack, an active two and a half year old, took a four hour nap while she was putting away the Christmas decorations, she took notice. There were other things, too. He fell asleep during a shopping trip to Costco, and Rachel’s husband Ed, who was in charge of bath time, had noticed a protrusion in Jack’s abdomen. With a doctor’s visit coming up, they planned to have it all checked out, but they didn’t have a chance. Jack woke up screaming the morning of New Year’s Eve, and he just wouldn’t calm down. They called the doctor’s office, but were advised to go to the emergency room, where Jack was checked for mono, appendicitis and cystic fibrosis. “They kept ruling things out,” Rachel says, adding that the list of possible illnesses kept getting worse. Unable to determine the cause, Jack was admitted for more testing.It was the next day, New Year’s Day, that Jack’s pediatrician told Rachel and Ed that Jack had cancer.
“It went fast from that point,” says Rachel. “You’re in a completely new world.” Jack had stage four hepatoblastoma that originated in his liver and had spread to both lungs. Hepatoblastoma is a very rare type of malignant tumor, and the exact cause is unknown. Rachel says that in Jack’s case, doctor’s believed it was a fetal mutation in which his liver didn’t stop growing when it should have. Jack had surgery that day. He had multiple masses in both lungs and one in his liver the size of a watermelon. That’s what was pushing his ribs out causing the protrusion in his abdomen.
Jack’s chemotherapy started January 9, and they were making weekly trips to the hospital. They were in and out of the hospital a lot during that time. Anytime Jack had a fever they had to go to the hospital. Just as they were adjusting to their new world, they got another surprise. Though she was not due until February 28th, Rachel went into labor February 5th, and their third son, Sam, was born. Within five hours of coming home with the new baby, they were back in the hospital with Jack who had a fever.
“It was chaos,” says Rachel. She had a new born, a two year old with cancer, and Charlie, her oldest, was five and in kindergarten. In addition, Jack was sick from the chemo and losing his hair. After the second round of chemo they learned that the tumors in Jack’s lungs were gone and the one in his liver had shrunk 50 percent, but it was wrapped around a main artery, and Jack needed a liver transplant. “I just wanted someone to tell me that he was going to be okay,” says Rachel, but no one could do that. Rachel and Ed learned that without the transplant surgery, Jack had only a ten percent chance of survival. With the surgery his survival rate went up to 85 or 90 percent.
Jack got on the transplant list on April 1, but there were indications that the cancer was spreading. Jack’s Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) numbers were going up. The AFP numbers serve as a marker for liver health. Normal levels are below ten; Jack’s had been 365,000. Doctors were unable to determine if and where the cancer was spreading, but if it was, it could jeopardize the transplant surgery. So, Jack was moved to emergency transplant status May 1. Rachel, Jack, Ed and Baby Sam had to be ready to leave for the transplant hospital at a moment’s notice. They had to have air transportation available, and arrangements for someone to care for Charlie. “We had to wear a beeper and be ready to leave at any time,” says Rachel, who adds that they were willing to jump through whatever hoops they had to or try just about anything to help Jack. “If they tell you to stand in the street and throw glitter in the air and sing a song, you’re going to do it four times a day,” she says.
On Mother’s Day that year Rachel remembers praying for a liver for Jack, but also being acutely aware that his liver would come from another child, and she grieved for the mother that would be losing her child. It was three days later, May 14, at 3 a.m. while she was nursing Sam, that they got the beep. They had a liver and had to leave immediately. Jack was prepped for surgery which went through the night and ended May 15. The doctors discovered that Jack’s AFP numbers had been correct; the tumor was growing, but it was contained to his liver so it did not affect the transplant. The surgery went very well. Jack was a perfect match to his donor, and they were home by June.
Jack, who turned three during his liver transplant recovery, recently celebrated being ten years cancer free. “Thankfully, he doesn’t remember much,” says Rachel adding that Jack does seem to be very in tune with his health for his age.“He does know a lot about his liver,” she says. Like other childhood cancer survivors, Jack will spend the rest of his life being monitored. Every two months he returns to the hospital for blood work. “I am constantly watching the AFP number,” says Rachel, who adds that after transplant surgery, Jack’s AFP went down to 12, and then to two, and that it has held at two ever since. He also takes immune suppressant medications to prevent his immune system from attacking and rejecting his liver, which has happened twice in the past decade. Jack also has a yearly cancer check that looks for late effects of the chemotherapy which are common among childhood cancer patients due to the effects of treatment on growing bodies. Rachel says that so far, any sign of late effects in Jack, which include some hearing loss, are minimal compared to what could have happened. Late effects can be physical, emotional, and/or cognitive and vary in degrees of severity. “It changes your whole attitude about what is important,” says Rachel.
In 2009, the Bell family welcomed their fourth child, Anna Kate. She is nine now. Sam is 10, and Charlie is 15. Even though Jack doesn’t remember much about his diagnosis and treatment, Rachel says it has definitely shaped who he is. Over the years Jack has become very close with his doctors and nurses and considers them part of his family. He even says that one day he’d like to be a doctor who specializes in the liver. “It’s important for these kids that survive to know how lucky they are,” says Rachel. “There will be a day he understands how serious it was and maybe he’s starting to realize that now.”
Coincidentally, while Jack was recovering from his transplant in May 2008, the United States Senate declared September 13 National Childhood Cancer Awareness Day. Later in 2012, September was made National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The proclamation states, “This month, we remember the young lives taken too soon, stand with the families facing childhood cancer today, and rededicate ourselves to combating this terrible illness.”
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.