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In the midst of a child’s fight with cancer, it can be difficult to maintain hope. Zoe, a 20 year old student entering the University of Montreal this fall to pursue a degree in sociology, understands this sentiment more than most. She saw those signs of struggle etched across her mother’s face while Zoe fought a brain tumor throughout her teen years.
The cancer discovery stemmed from Zoe suffering sporadic seizures. Despite conferring with multiple doctors, none could pinpoint the cause. Their fruitless search for the origin of the seizures finally concluded during the most memorable soccer match of Zoe’s life. Unfortunately, it also signaled the start of a far more grueling contest.
“In the match that she played, she had a big seizure and lost consciousness,” said her mother, Julie. “We called an ambulance and I said, ‘This time you’re going to the Children’s Hospital in Montreal because I want to know what’s going on.’”
After some additional tests, they discovered that 12-year-old Zoe had what turned out to be pleomorphic xantoastrocytoma – a rare type of astrocytoma, brain tumors that are the most common form of childhood glioma. Two weeks later, Zoe had what they believed was a successful surgery, so much so the doctors even said she wouldn’t need further treatment.
Unfortunately, their prediction would prove false within six months. Zoe’s cancer returned, larger and more dangerous than before.
Her second surgery became costly when an artery compressed during the procedure. She left the hospital paralyzed on her left side and blind in her left eye. For someone who was constantly active, it was devastating.
“She came out of there in a wheelchair with cancer, so she underwent chemotherapy, radiation therapy, physical therapy, ergotherapy all at the same time,” said Julie. “Our world was upside down.”
She and Julie spent three weeks at a rehabilitation center in Montreal where Zoe went through the same taxing therapies repeatedly. Despite severe exhaustion, Zoe persisted.
“She never wanted to stop, she’s not a quitter. She just kept going,” said Julie.
Even when her pediatric doctor in Montreal told Zoe she should stop after 10 to 12 months of chemotherapy treatment, her family sought second opinions that said she ought to continue. She wanted to ensure they eradicated the tumor. Her treatment lasted for 22 months total, until Zoe finally decided the toll was too great.
“It was difficult for her, the chemo, and when we went back to see another doctor he said, ‘We don’t know if it’s doing anything so you could always stop,’” said Julie. “From there, right in the car on the way back she wanted to stop.”
For almost two years after that treatment concluded, Zoe was stable. Then, another relapse occurred in November 2013, leaving the family with fewer, riskier options. Her only treatment available in Montreal was powerful targeted radiation that could cause mental side effects. Her family felt uncomfortable taking the risk, so they continued to search for options. Finally, her oncologist mentioned a clinical trial in Toronto that seemed promising.
Thankfully Zoe qualified and that clinical trial soon became a miracle for her family. After just two months of treatment, an MRI showed that the tumor shrunk by 80%.
“It was a miracle for us because with the other chemo the rest of the tumor never shrank,” said Julie. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Zoe now has no evidence of disease but remains on the clinical trial and travels to Toronto once a month. She doesn’t have full use of her mobility, but she’s working with a personal trainer to help rectify that every chance she gets. As she prepares to start University this fall, Zoe has set her eyes on eventually teaching collegiately in the future.
A future Zoe and her family once thought was in doubt.
Her survival was reliant on advances in childhood cancer research, and her mother is grateful that organizations like Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation are helping provide funding opportunities that allow miracles like Zoe to occur.
“See the result? My daughter’s the result of that funding,” says Julie. “What the money does is help someone like my daughter.”
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