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 li;ed Zach up and
Zach complained that the “bump” under his arm hurt. We
looked and saw a pretty good-sized lump in his armpit.
;e next day, we took him to the pediatrician, who sent
Zach for blood tests right away. ;at evening, we went to
the ER [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. ;e 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.
;en, even though he was still on treatment, Zach started
getting ;u-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 con;rmed.
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. ;e other option was a clinical trial. ;e 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. ;e 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
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 ;nally won over a;er
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 a;er 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.
46 AACR Cancer Progress Report 2014
OVERCOMING ANAPLASTIC LARGE CELL LYMPHOMA
THANKS TO THE LUNG CANCER DRUG CRIZOTINIB