Papillary Thyroid Cancer: Zach’s Story

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When 14-year-old Zach’s six-month thyroid checkup fell smack in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrew Bauer, MD, Medical Director of the Pediatric Thyroid Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), suggested the family get an updated thyroid scan at their local hospital in California and send it to CHOP for evaluation. Zach’s family, however, was committed to seeing Dr. Bauer in person.

“I jokingly suggested that we hop in an RV and take a road trip to Philadelphia,” says Zach’s mom, Janis. “Of course, Jon [Zach’s dad] took that very seriously.”

Zach displaying his baseball bats Worried that the flight from California could pose additional exposure to COVID-19 and necessitate a 14-day quarantine in Philadelphia, the family began to research the possibility of renting an RV for a cross-country road trip. Quickly discovering that the 7,000-mile drive would be far too expensive in a rented RV, Zach’s parents decided that their best option was to purchase one outright.

“If there was any change in Zach’s health, we knew we’d be coming to CHOP anyway,” says Jon. “So, we decided to make an adventure out of it.”

The family had good reason for this trip to CHOP — a once-in-a-lifetime road trip that would ultimately take Zach, his older sister Ashley, and their parents across 19 states in 20 days. Zach had been diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2018, at just 11 years old, and his thyroid had been removed at a local California hospital. Throughout his initial care, Zach’s California doctors consulted with the experts in CHOP’s Pediatric Thyroid Center. So, when it was time for Zach to receive radioactive iodine treatment — a procedure that destroys any remaining cancer cells — Zach’s parents decided to seek consult straight from the source.

Sure, we’d have to travel, but if this was where everyone was calling to get advice, why wouldn’t we just go to the place with the experts and the super high level of care?

During the family’s initial visit to CHOP, Dr. Bauer discovered that Zach had additional cancerous lymph nodes that hadn’t been removed in his first surgery. Fortunately, the Thyroid Center team determined that the problem nodes could be removed through a minimally-invasive procedure. Although Zach would need radioactive iodine treatment, the family knew they were in competent hands.

“The whole team communicated with each other,” says Janis, noting that the multidisciplinary Thyroid Center team — including world-renowned endocrinologists, surgeons, interventional radiologists and many other clinicians and staff members — communicate regularly each week and meet monthly to review each patient’s case and determine the best course of action for their care. “The care felt family-focused,” she says.

During a follow-up visit in 2019, Dr. Bauer discovered another cancerous lymph node, so small it could be treated by a percutaneous — through the skin — injection of ethyl alcohol, which would slowly cause the node to shrink and the cancer to regress. For Zach’s parents, this procedure, which allowed Zach to avoid an additional surgery, was just one example of the cutting-edge technology and innovation that keeps them coming back to CHOP — even at the height of a global pandemic.

At Zach’s most recent checkup, a neck ultrasound confirmed that the cancerous lymph node is getting smaller and receiving less blood flow, an indication that the node may eventually go away.

Zach and his family The family celebrated with a visit to Hershey World at the start of their long journey home. Over the course of their adventure, they’d eaten cheesesteaks in Philadelphia and tasted cheese curds in Wisconsin; visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and walked the grounds of Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana. From camping on the Colorado River to — Zach’s personal highlight — visiting the Louisville Slugger Museum, this cross-country road trip created memories the family hopes to never forget.

But it’s Zach’s medical journey and his experience with Dr. Bauer that seems to have made the greatest impression on Zach — so much so that he is considering a future career in endocrinology.

“He’s made a difference for us,” says Zach. “I want to make a difference for people, too.”

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