It seemed like a typical task on a typical day for Elizabeth Gordon. She was washing her 2-year-old son Liam’s hair, when she noticed a golf-ball sized bump high on his forehead, near his hairline. Liam was an active, rough-and-tumble toddler, so she assumed he had bumped his head on something.
For a few days, Elizabeth iced the bump, monitored it, and kept an eye on Liam’s behavior. She noticed that he was drooling a lot and not eating as much as usual. She thought maybe he was teething, but something about the bump on his head bothered her. There was no cut, bruising, or redness around it and it was not going away. She asked her pediatrician to look at it.
“The pediatrician measured the bump and then left the room and made some phone calls. Then he came in and told us that we needed to go straight to the emergency room [at Memorial Health University Medical Center]. He said they needed to do scans to see if this was a brain tumor,” said Elizabeth.
Her husband, Ricky, met her at the hospital. Imaging scans confirmed that the bump on Liam’s head was, in fact, a tumor. There were also tumors on the back of his skull and on both sides of his jaw, which is why he had not been eating.
Andrew Pendleton, M.D., a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at the Memorial Health Dwaine & Cynthia Willett Children’s Hospital of Savannah, sat with the Gordons throughout all of the tests. He explained that Liam would be admitted to the hospital. They would do a biopsy to see what type of tumor it was and begin treatment right away.
“It was extremely overwhelming. All of these medical terms are being thrown at you and all you can do is listen and nod and say ‘ok.’ There’s nothing else you can do,” said Elizabeth.
A surgeon removed most of the tumor from the front of Liam’s skull and performed a biopsy to see what type of cancer it was. On April 9, 2014, the toddler was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that starts in the nerve cells of infants and young children. Liam’s cancer started in his left adrenal gland, which doctors removed, along with his appendix. They also placed a tube in his chest that would be used to deliver chemotherapy, fluids, and other medications straight to his bloodstream. Liam immediately received three rounds of chemotherapy at the Willett Children’s Hospital.
Next, he and his parents spent a month at the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta where Liam received a stem cell transplant. This is a complex treatment that involves removing the child’s stem cells and then giving extremely high doses of chemotherapy. The chemotherapy kills the cancer cells and shuts down the body’s bone marrow so that it can no longer produce blood cells. The previously removed stem cells are then transplanted back into the body and enable the bone marrow to function again. It is a grueling procedure with painful side effects.
“Being in Atlanta for the stem cell transplant was the worst part because we were away from home and away from our other two kids [Chrystian and Jade], for a month,” said Elizabeth.
After the stem cell transplant, they were grateful to return to Savannah for the remainder of the treatment.
Over the course of 16 months, Liam’s cancer treatment required eight surgeries, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and a relatively new treatment called immunotherapy. Immunotherapy stimulates the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Throughout the course of his treatment, Liam never slowed down.
Liam Gordon Photo“We were amazed at how well he did during treatment. He would take off running down the hallway, full-speed. He would stop, vomit, and then take off running again. I was always running behind him with a trash bag,” laughed Elizabeth.
After his immunotherapy ended, Liam became the first child at the Memorial Health Willett Children’s Hospital to enroll in a clinical trial for a cancer relapse-prevention drug called DFMO. Clinical trials give patients access to new treatments that are not yet widely available. The family is in the final phase of the trial, which will end in October 2017. Liam is currently in remission and takes the relapse-prevention pill every day.
“Even though he’s only 5 years old, he can swallow a pill like a pro,” said Elizabeth. “He had to learn how to do it when he was only 2. We would give him mini M&M candies and he would practice swallowing those.”
Liam is in kindergarten now, and he is still active and on-the-go. He has scars on his abdomen and hearing aids in both ears as a result of his cancer treatment. But that doesn’t stop him. He loves to jump on the trampoline, play soccer, and play with electronics.
Elizabeth says they were shaken by Liam’s diagnosis, and they would not have gotten through it without the team at the Memorial Health Willett Children’s Hospital. The doctors, nurses, therapists, and child life specialists have become a second family for the Gordons, and they are extremely grateful