Steph and Jake Holbrook know the date of every important moment in their son’s life: William’s first steps, his first words, and even his first Boston Red Sox game. Another date they’ll forever remember: Jan. 17, 2018, when they were told that William—then 10 months old—had a rare type of liver cancer.
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Steph. “I remember the room starting to spin a bit as the radiologist explained what he was seeing.”
William’s pediatrician first raised concerns when he stopped gaining weight at seven months. William was monitored closely for the next two months, and when things didn’t improve, the Holbrooks went to Boston Children’s Hospital.
Bloodwork and a subsequent ultrasound revealed a tumor in William’s liver: he had metastatic hepatoblastoma, a rare cancer that originates in the liver. The next day, a chest scan revealed William’s cancer had spread to both of his lungs—one of the most common areas of the body that hepatoblastoma spreads to.
William was enrolled in the Liver Tumor Program at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center under the care of Jennifer Mack, MD, MPH, a physician in the Pediatric Solid Tumor Center, and fellow Marc Schwartz, MD, PhD. William received surgery in May 2018 to completely remove the tumor in his liver, and he underwent multiple cycles of chemotherapy before and after surgery.
While it effectively treated his cancer, William also experienced side effects as a result of chemotherapy. Most of these were short-term, but today he needs to wear hearing aids as a result of hearing loss. Side effects like hearing loss can occur because the agents in chemotherapy attack all cells in the body; they are unable to differentiate between normal, healthy cells and cancer cells.
After completing his first month of treatment, it was time to see if it was working. Sitting with him in his hospital room in February of last year, the Holbrooks awaited the results of their son’s latest alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) tumor marker test, which can indicate the presence of liver cancer in patients. It was getting late, and the couple asked a nurse to wake them only if she had good news.
At 1:30 a.m., the nurse came to share the good news: William’s AFP numbers had dropped significantly, and the chemotherapy, while toxic, was doing its job.
“There is nothing that can prepare you to watch your child go through chemo,” Jake says. “But once we knew it was helping, we were confident William would continue to head in the right direction.”
William continued to improve, and in August 2018, he completed chemotherapy. His port—a small device installed beneath the skin that allows patients to both receive their drugs and have blood samples taken without repeated “needle sticks”—was removed that morning, and that evening, he took his first steps. Today, William is in remission. He loves to dance and take trips to the library to pick out his favorite books.
In the meantime, Schwartz and the rest of the team will continue to monitor William for any signs of recurrence. Every year that goes by lowers the chance of his cancer coming back.
“He’s finally able to be a kid,” Steph says. “We absolutely love watching him find amazement in the world around him.”