Meet Zac Oliver below!
Video credit: Shropshire Star
A Midlands four-year-old who flew to the US for pioneering treatment for a rare strain of leukemia is now cancer free.
Zac Oliver, from Broseley, Shropshire, issued a poignant message to supporters around the world this week. The youngster confirmed the overwhelmingly happy news on social media.
According to dailymail, This morning four-year-old Zac Oliver will wake up beside his mother Hannah, little brother Leo and step-father Wayne on a makeshift camp in the family’s front room.
God willing, there will be no more punishing cycles of chemotherapy to contain his incredibly rare form of leukemia.
No more life-or-death dashes to a hospital when he falls desperately ill with an infection. No more fears this could be the final spring in his short life.
For this winsome little boy, who moved a nation when his family launched a herculean £500,000 fund-raising campaign last year to send him to the States for pioneering immunotherapy treatment, is cancer free.
His mother Hannah was told on Tuesday at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), where Zac has received the revolutionary CAR T-cell therapy, that her precious little boy is in remission.
They returned to their home in Broseley near Telford yesterday where Zac now has a strong chance of a long, healthy life.
Had he continued with the only treatments available to him in the UK, chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant, his fifth birthday later this month would have been likely to have been his last.
‘When the doctor at CHOP told me … honestly, I don’t know how to describe it,’ says Hannah. ‘If there’s ever been a moment in your life when you physically can’t stop your mouth smiling, like when your child first walks — it was like that. Afterward, I took Zac to a restaurant for something to eat because my brain wasn’t functioning properly to cook.
‘After we ordered from the menu it hit me. I began sobbing and sobbing uncontrollably. It was just so overwhelming the idea that my son could stay in remission — that we can get our lives back and be a normal family again.
‘It’s the hope that is so fantastic because without this treatment there wasn’t any. He had less than a 25 percent chance of surviving. We were told when he was diagnosed in May he was unlikely to live two-and-a-half years more.
‘You go through a bereavement period when you think things like: what will your last words be to him?’ Hannah doesn’t try to stem her tears. She had to be so strong for her son for the past ten months. This outpouring is a relief.
‘I thought if it came to that I’d tell him if he goes to sleep then I’ll take him to see the dinosaurs tomorrow. I wouldn’t have wanted him to know he was dying because then he’d be scared. So I thought, ‘If I just pretend everything’s OK. He’s mad about dinosaurs so he’ll look forward to that.’
‘Then you wonder what songs would he want at his … I can’t even say the word. Anyway, it’s not going to happen now, but to go from that hopelessness to suddenly be able to believe Zac’s going to live and he’s going to grow old.
‘Zac was in tears too at the restaurant. He came and hugged me and I told him: ‘These are happy tears because you don’t have cancer anymore. Why don’t we phone grandad and Auntie Sarah to tell them?
‘When we called my sister and Zac said: ‘Guess what Auntie Sarah, I don’t have cancer anymore.’ Sarah burst into tears. I don’t think she’s stopped crying since.’
The sheer relief for this close-knit family is understandably overwhelming. They’ve moved heaven and earth for Zac since he was diagnosed, in May last year, with a particularly aggressive and rare strain of near-Haploid lymphoblastic leukemia which affects fewer than 0.5 percent of childhood leukemia sufferers worldwide.
His only hope was a rare treat, only available in the U.S., where immune cells called T-cells are harvested from a sufferer’s blood, modified in a laboratory, before being injected back into the body. The family threw themselves into fund-raising, with the people of Telford organizing everything from sponsored walks to concerts and cake sales.
Celebrities including Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, footballer Jermain Defoe, and Simon Cowell donated. They were just £100,000 short of their target last October when, after reading about his plight in the Mail, an anonymous donor made an incredible gift. Zac and his mother boarded a plane for Philadelphia weeks later.
Hannah’s hugely poignant diary written during this final stage of treatment was published in the Daily Mail last month. The entries ended on the day the T-cells, which Zac knows as ‘Pac Mans’, were dispersed into his bloodstream to fight the cancer cells. They had five agonizing weeks to wait to see if the ‘Pac Mans’ would win.
I meet Hannah and Zac in Philadelphia in their ‘pretend home’ (Zac’s words) on the day they receive the wondrous news they had won. He is a different boy to the four-year-old I have come to know in the past five months since he first boarded that plane, not knowing if, and when, he’d be home again.
He laughs easily now, his eyes sparkle and there is color in his cheeks. He is also tactile and loving, liking nothing more than to hurtle into your arms for cuddles.
Indeed, it is only seeing him like this that you realize how desperately he must have been suffering and what an effort he made to muster the smile that endeared him to so many of us.
Zac is the first child to receive the therapy at such an early stage of cancer treatment. The NHS makes it available only when a leukemia sufferer has relapsed after treatments including chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant have failed. The CAR T-cell therapy was, Hannah says, his only hope.
‘These past five weeks have been the longest period,’ says Hannah, 33. ‘After he had the CAR T-cells he was really, really tired. He would sleep for 13 hours a night and three or four hours during the day. All you can do is sit and watch him and wait.’
Zac will return to Philadelphia at the end of April for another bone marrow biopsy to see if he remains in remission, and then at three-monthly intervals for the next year.
In the meantime, he will receive intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) once a month to prevent infection. Whilst survival statistics for this cutting edge CAR T-cell therapy are scarce, the first little girl to receive CAR-T therapy, Emily Whitehead, remains in remission after seven years.
‘The doctors at CHOP don’t like to use the cure word because, they say, they’re a superstitious bunch. They don’t want to jinx it,’ says Hannah. ‘They’ve said these results are fantastic news but it doesn’t take away from the fact he’s got a very aggressive form of cancer — or had. I can say ‘had’ now.’ She smiles a truly joyous smile as the reality of this sinks in.
‘We know this cancer is hard to treat because the cancer cells hide. The T-cells have to keep working so whenever one of those little guys comes out from its hiding place they’re ready to kill it.
‘Meanwhile, other than having IVIG and a blood test once a month, they’ve said he can carry on with life as if he was a normal little boy — go to school, go on holiday and play as other children do.
‘I promised Zac that when we get home we’d make a camp in the front room and sleep together as a normal family. It’s so exciting to be able to make these little promises now the odds are in Zac’s favor. Finally, we have hope.’
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