At the age of 8, Zach Ellingson had heard of cancer. It was a disease that other people got.
“Thinking about it now,” he says as a 12-year-old, “I know that I am ‘other people’ to other people.”
Zach is recovering from acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common type of cancer in childhood, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
“He was a very, very sick boy for a while,” says his mother, Jennifer DeWeerth, of Clinton.
She says that Zach started getting sick around spring break of second grade in 2010. He had one cold after another, and pink eye, and strep throat, and he was very tired. The family cancelled a weekend trip because Zach was feeling so bad. That weekend, he started vomiting dark blood.
His pediatrician ordered blood tests and quickly sent Zach to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. Doctors found that Zach had the second highest white blood cell count they had ever seen.
“I was terrified. I had no idea what was going on,” Zach recalls. “I knew something was up judging by their emotions and facial expressions.”
The first night in the pediatric intensive care unit, Richard Sills, MD, took care of Zach. Then Karol Kerr, MD, oversaw the youngster’s treatment, which included seven months of chemotherapy infusions, followed by radiation. After that, Zach took a chemotherapy pill daily for three and a half years. He missed almost half of third grade.
Today he’s a sixth grader who comes for blood tests and a checkup every month at Upstate.
Leukemia left Zach with a brain that does not work like it used to. He does not think as fast as before, and his short term memory is lacking, DeWeerth says of her son. He fatigues easily, but he is getting back into sports. He plays soccer, lacrosse and football.
Zach says he was hospitalized for a couple months, but it felt like years. Sleeping in the hospital was difficult with the oxygen mask he wore at first. He missed his friends, and his parents and brother.
But the worst part? “Probably just the suspense,” he says. “I really didn’t know if I was going to make it or not.”
The nurses and doctors were nice, Zach says. “They really took good care of me. And, there was a Tim Horton’s.” He has fond memories of blueberry muffins his mom brought him from the café and bake shop.
DeWeerth says her son has recognized some positives that came from his experience. “He has been able to see how strong he is, and it has given him a sense of compassion for others.”
Learn about the preview of the Upstate Cancer Center
Listen to a radio interview about the Upstate Cancer Center
Read the new Cancer Care publication
Get a free subscription by sending your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org