On July 19, 2017, Kelli and Dennis Williams sat in a pre-op room at Seattle Children’s with their 22-month-old son, Isaac. Kelli hugged her little boy close. She and Dennis did their best to appear calm in front of their son, but inside they were terrified.

Isaac had stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma. He’d already been through four months of chemotherapy, and now Dr. John Waldhausen, a surgeon specializing in neuroblastoma cases, was going to remove a tumor the size of a navel orange from his abdomen.

As they waited in the pre-op room, Kelli and Dennis realized it would be the last time they would see Isaac’s smooth, flawless belly. After surgery, he would have a large scar, stretching from hip to hip and up to his chest, a permanent reminder of his illness.

“I lifted up his shirt and tickled his stomach before he went in, knowing it would never look the same,” remembered Dennis. “It made me pretty sad.”

When a nurse came to get Isaac, Kelli reluctantly handed over her child.

“We’re going to take good care of him,” the nurse reassured her.

Isaac waved goodbye to his mom and dad, and they kept up their smiles until he was out of sight. Then Kelli broke down, letting out all the tears she’d been holding back.

“You never expect this to happen to your child,” said Dennis. “They said he had a 50-50 chance of surviving, like the flip of a coin.”

Thankfully, Isaac was exactly where he needed to be. Seattle Children’s providers are among the most experienced in the nation at treating solid tumors in children.

“Initially, it felt impossible,” Dennis said of Isaac’s diagnosis and 18 months of treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, two stem cell transplants and surgery to remove the tumor. “But we put our faith in his providers and took it one day at a time.”

Isaac’s surgery was one of the more complicated aspects of his treatment. Neuroblastoma tumors are often wrapped around major blood vessels and can invade other organs. This was the case for Isaac.

“We did our research, so we knew our doctor had experience with patients like Isaac,” said Kelli. “But it was more than that. When we spoke to him ahead of time, Dr. Waldhausen said he would treat our child like he was his own. That gave us a lot of confidence.”

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Isaac points at an x-ray during a follow-up appointment with Dr. John Waldhausen, Seattle Children’s pediatric surgeon, who removed a tumor the size of an orange from Isaac’s abdomen.
Isaac points at an x-ray during a follow-up appointment with Dr. John Waldhausen, Seattle Children’s pediatric surgeon, who removed a tumor the size of an orange from Isaac’s abdomen.

“These are rare and unusual tumors,” Waldhausen said. “They don’t occur often, but we see many of them because of the size of our referral center and the reputation of our oncology program. We have a core group of surgeons who deal with these regularly and have gotten really good at taking them out.”

The surgery was expected to take 10 to 12 hours. But after just over 6.5 hours, Waldhausen came out with good news: He’d removed the tumor and saved most of Isaac’s kidney. “It was the best outcome we could ask for,” said Kelli.

Today, Isaac has been in remission for two years and is preparing to start kindergarten in the fall.

“He is a super-active 5-year-old who likes to wrestle with his brother and is learning to read,” Dennis said. “Once his treatment ended, he got right back to regularly scheduled programming. He didn’t skip a beat!”

Without knowing his story, no one would ever guess Isaac had cancer, unless they saw the scar on his stomach.

“I see Isaac’s scar in a positive way now,” said Dennis. “As one step he had to take to get him to where he is now.”

“It’s a sign that he survived,” added Kelli. “When he’s old enough to understand what he went through, we’ll have a really powerful story to share with him.”

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