In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, we are sharing a series of stories about some of our incredible patients who have overcome cancer or are currently fighting the disease.
On Sept. 19, 2013, 8-year-old Hunter Schroeder celebrated one of the biggest milestones of his life – it marked his second year cancer free.
That’s all his mother, Heather Schroeder, heard when the tests results came back from his two-year checkup. And with that, the weight of the world lifted off her shoulders. She was finally able to relax and breathe again.
He was healthy and perfect, exactly what she’d been praying to hear ever since her son was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer of the myeloid cells, in 2011.
“It’s taken a while stop panicking about every bruise and every fever, and to see the hospital and not think his cancer has come back. But after two years, we’re finally getting there,” said Heather. “We’re finally getting back to normal, or at least adjusting to our new normal.”
She can, however, vividly remember the difficult time when the bruises on Hunter’s body did signify something very wrong with her little boy.
How normal life was shattered with bruises and a fever
Hunter was an active, goofy 5-year-old, which is why when the bruises on his arms and legs first started appearing they didn’t cause too much concern. He was like every other boy his age, a bit rambunctious.
It wasn’t until he caught the flu in December 2011 that his mother’s concern started to grow. He didn’t get over the illness like his older brother had, even though they’d fallen ill at the same time. The illness lingered in Hunter, and he became more and more lethargic with each passing day.
“For days all he would want to do was sleep,” said Heather. “It wasn’t until Christmas rolled around that we thought something might really be wrong with him. He was so tired he didn’t want to do anything. He just wanted to sleep.”
But come Jan. 4, 2012, everything seemed fine again. Hunter was getting ready for his first day back to school. It was all he could think or talk about for days.
“He woke up excited, ready to go to, a big smile on his face. We thought he was back to being himself,” she said.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Only about an hour after being dropped off at school, Heather got a phone call. Hunter needed to be picked up. He was so tired he wasn’t able to stay awake in class and was complaining he didn’t feel well.
Immediately, he was taken to see his doctor and was soon after transferred to Seattle Children’s Hospital for further testing. It was then, after the test results came back, that the world came crashing down.
“We didn’t even know what leukemia was,” said Heather. “We knew what cancer was, but when you hear the word cancer you think of older people who have smoked for years, not kids, not Hunter. It was an absolute shock.”
Diagnosed with AML, Hunter began treatment at Seattle Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center on what should have been his first week back to school.
Helping others when times were tough
To rid his body of the leukemia, Hunter endured five courses of very strong chemotherapy, multiple stays inpatient at Children’s and a small stint in isolation. The journey to recovery was trying.
In Hunter’s words, “cancer sucked,” but throughout his treatment he never let it get him down. There was always a silver lining to every situation.
“I truthfully cannot remember all of the drugs and chemotherapy that were administered,” said Heather. “Our life became a cycle of chemotherapy and shots, inpatient stays and discharges.”
But Hunter made the best of his stays at the hospital.
“He ran that floor when he was inpatient,” said Heather.
During his time at Children’s, Hunter would always make sure everyone else in the unit was taken care of. It was evident that he truly cared about the people around him, that he wanted everyone to feel better.
“He has the biggest heart,” said Heather.
When he was able to walk around the unit, he’d go room to room making sure the other patients were okay. If someone couldn’t leave their room, he would ask how he could help. If another patient seemed sicker than he was, he’d ask why he seemed so healthy. As he battled cancer, he battled cancer for everyone else as well.
Hunter grew especially close to the babies and toddlers on the unit. He affectionately gave each of them nicknames and checked on them every day.
“He felt very protective of them,” said Heather.
But even Hunter had bad days and sometimes was unable to make his rounds around the unit.
“His fourth round of chemotherapy was the hardest,” said Heather.
But when times were tough, the other patients showed him just how much his compassion and support meant to them. They came and visited him.
“His friends would come by and draw and play on his window, just to keep him occupied,” said Heather.
He was in isolation for 10 days, during which time he was unable to eat and needed a feeding tube for nutrients. Every day his friends would come.
Fortunately, even isolation was no match for him. He was back to dancing around his room to “Peanut Butter Jelly” in no time. See Hunter dance in the video below.
“He was miserable, but still did the best he could,” said Heather.
And after eight months of intense treatment, he beat cancer.
“He doesn’t always remember what happened during his treatment,” said Heather. “I think he tries to block it out, but he does remember the people.”
Jessica Pollard, MD, an attending physician in hematology/oncology at Children’s, was one such person. He’ll always remember her kindness. She was always available to answer questions and offer support, never too busy to sit down and talk.
“Dr. Pollard made sure we understood exactly what was happening throughout his treatment. She would explain things five or six times just to make sure we understood everything completely. She was always so patient and kind,” said Heather.
Where Hunter is today – two years cancer free
Hunter truly is perfect. Today, he’s a healthy, thriving 8-year-old boy.
“Hunter is doing great! He is now two years from completion of his treatment and thankfully is doing very well. He makes me smile every time I see him because he is back doing all the same things 8-year-old boys should be doing,” said Pollard.
But Hunter is far from a typical boy. His experience at Children’s has transformed the way he sees the world. He participates in runs and walks to benefit children battling cancer, attends events to raise money for pediatric cancer research and happily shares his story with other people going through treatment. Now, instead of making his usual rounds in the unit at Children’s, he is doing his best to raise money and support for those battling cancer in units across the country.
“It makes him feel good. He feels like he’s giving back,” said Heather. “He knows he had cancer and that he lost friends, but that’s why we do these events, to help others.”
A very special little boy
“Sometimes I’m not sure where he came from,” said Heather. “As parents you hope to raise your kids and do the best you can for them, but with Hunter it’s overwhelming. He’s just so amazing.”
On Aug. 25, 2013, Hunter attended One Big Kiss at the Ballpark to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer research. In September, he’ll run to raise money to help others who are battling cancer.
“He doesn’t realize it, but seeing him and other kids have the ability to return to “normal” life, it’s the highlight of my day – and why I continue to do what I do,” said Pollard.
Helping Hunter help others
If you’d like to interview Hunter, please contact Seattle Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.