Zac, with MCRI researcher Dr David Elliott
The night Zac's parents were told their son had leukaemia was the night the family’s world fell apart.
“When my husband and I were given the diagnosis, I felt like running out and punching a wall,” Zac's Mum Lynda says.
“You think, what have I done? What have we done? How did he get this, and why?”
Less than a week earlier, Lynda took eight-year-old Zac to the GP with virus-like symptoms including a runny nose and fever. He hadn’t been eating much. They were told it was likely a virus but to return if the fever didn’t subside.
Days later, they were back in the doctor’s office and given antibiotics to kill off whatever was causing the persistent fever. But Zac couldn’t keep the antibiotics or any painkillers down and he had developed a rash.
He was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), a form of leukaemia more common in adults. Only about 50 children are diagnosed in Australia each year.
He had also developed pneumonia as his immune system started to collapse. Within five days of the first GP visit, he was transferred to RCH and hooked up to chemotherapy.
It was the start of a rollercoaster seven-month journey in the hospital’s cancer ward. The chemotherapy hit Zac hard. The main side effect was a brutal abscess he developed on his bottom, which took a long time for specialists to understand how to treat and to control the chronic pain he experienced.
It also took a toll on the family’s life. Lynda and her husband have three other children, including Zac’s twin sister, who all witnessed their sibling’s pain. Lynda was by Zac’s side the whole time and would only see her other children about once a week. Her husband visited as often as he could.
Despite the toxicity of the treatment, Zac is now in remission. But the chemotherapy damaged Zac’s heart.
The nine-year-old is now part of a study led by Dr David Elliott into cardiotoxicity in childhood cancer patients. The study aims to determine which patients are more susceptible to heart damage caused by chemotherapy. The hope is that patients in future will be tested for susceptibility to cardiotoxicity and their cancer treatment tailored to avoid heart damage.
Lynda says the family are happy for Zac to be a part of research that will help others like him avoid cardiac issues.
Zac, she says, is now back to being ‘normal Zac’. He remembers everything that happened to him in 2014, but chooses not to think about it.
“That’s in the past now,” says Lynda. “We are on the other side of it and we are the luckiest people in the world, we believe, very lucky.”