A Young Boy from Washington Township Conquers Cancer Like a Super Hero – Cancer Care, Hackensack University Medical Center, Health Topics, Pediatrics

June 4, 2021

About a month after Alex Hammer turned 4, he had a constant fever and ear infections. When he started to sound like he had marbles in his mouth when talking and had trouble breathing, his mother, Krista, took him to an otolaryngologist.

Alex – who lives in Washington Township, New Jersey – was diagnosed with mononucleosis (mono) and was put on steroids. He immediately improved, but about a week after the steroid course ended, all his symptoms returned.

The ENT doctor suggested Krista go to Alex’s pediatrician. It was the day before Thanksgiving in 2016 when they went to the pediatrician. After an examination and consultation with another doctor in the office, Alex’s pediatrician told them to go home and said he would do some checkups and call later.

When he called 30 minutes later, after consulting with a specialist, he told Krista to get Alex quickly to the emergency room at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center. A medical team was waiting for them there because the pediatrician suspected that Alex had cancer.

A holiday like no other

Over the course of six hours, Alex underwent a number of tests, including X-rays and blood work. When a medical team of 10 people entered Alex’s room, Krista knew the news couldn’t be good. Alex had lymphoblastic lymphoma (LBL), a form of childhood non-Hodgkin cancer, in his neck and chest. About 800 new cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are diagnosed in children under the age of 19 each year. Eighty percent of patients remain disease-free at the end of therapy. This is a highly curable form of pediatric cancer, says hematologist/oncologist Stacey Rifkin-Zenenberg, DO

Because this type of cancer involves rapidly dividing cells, immediate treatment is recommended. Alex’s medical team wanted to begin treatment that same night, but his family asked to wait until after Thanksgiving. “It was hard to believe all this was happening,” Krista says. “My husband said, ‘Let’s go home. Let’s see our family. Let’s wrap our brains around this.’”

The day after the vacation, Alex had surgery to insert his port (a small, metal donut-shaped device) into a vein to facilitate blood draws and chemotherapy. His parents were also asked if they would allow him to participate in a clinical trial to test whether a targeted drug administered in addition to standard chemotherapy drugs would improve the effectiveness of the treatment.

Whether Alex would get the drug tested was determined at random by flipping a (computerized) coin, but his parents agreed to let him participate in the study. It’s too early to know the results of that trial, says Burton Appel, MD, Alex’s primary oncologist and associate director of the Children’s Cancer Institute at Children’s Hospital. However, we know that many of the successes of childhood cancer treatment over the past 50 years have been determined by randomized trials such as Alex’s.

The winding road to recovery

Alex’s treatment lasted more than two years, during which time he experienced the typical complications of chemotherapy, says Dr. Apple, such as fever, pneumonia and low blood counts. Some of those complications landed him in the hospital.

Alex didn’t like going through it, his mother says, and getting him to do things that needed to be done in the hospital was a challenge. “He’s very stubborn. He knows what he wants and won’t do anything he doesn’t want to,” she says.

The medical team understood. “You could tell he just wanted to feel better so he could get active again,” says Dr. Apple. “I think the hardest thing for him was the time he had to spend in the hospital. He just wanted to be at home, which is of course very normal for a child.”

The good news was that his cancer responded well to his treatment. He completed chemotherapy in March 2019. “Most relapses would occur within the first one to two years of completing chemotherapy,” says Dr. Apple. “So the fact that he’s over that two-year span is very encouraging.”

superhero powers

When Alex was done with his treatment, the surgeon who inserted his port, Keith Kuenzler, MD, removed it in a second procedure, cleaned it, and gave it to Alex’s mother. “Patients and parents always take it home with pride on the day of removal,” he says. “Certainly compared to the day I have to build the port, it is such a beautiful moment. I never get tired of it.”

Krista Hammer wasn’t sure what to do with the piece of metal at first, but she brought it home anyway. “I took it home and remember staring at it. I held it in the palm of my hand. It was literally the size of a dime. I thought, ‘This is what kept him alive,'” she says.

Then inspiration struck. During Alex’s treatment, his family called him “Iron Man,” after the superhero Alex admired. In the center of Iron Man’s chest is a circular device that keeps him alive and gives him super powers – kind of like Alex’s gate.

A family friend introduced Krista to an artist who transformed an Iron Man figurine by sticking Alex’s gate into his chest. “It’s in Alex’s room, and it’s just the coolest thing,” Krista says.

Now more than two years post-treatment, Alex is being referred to the Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health’s Cure and Beyond program, says Dr. Apple. Cure and Beyond is a lifelong support program for childhood cancer survivors that provides medical and psychosocial support to identify and manage any long-term effects of childhood cancer.

But right now, his mom says, Alex is focused on finally becoming the active, healthy kid he’s always wanted to be.

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