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Stories of Getting Better at Children's Hospital Colorado

Overcoming medulloblastoma

Conner Odell probably wouldn't be alive today if not for an innovative treatment for pediatric brain cancer that was pioneered at Children's Hospital Colorado.

Today, Conner is a 4-year-old ball of energy with a shock of bleach-blonde hair, big blue eyes and a heart of gold, according to his parents Ryan and Jen.

"He's so kind. He cares a lot about people, and he really watches out for his little brothers," says Ryan. Knowing the challenges he overcame, and the cancer he survived, one can't help but wonder if Conner's compassionate nature was inspired by the care he received at Children's Colorado.

Conner was Ryan and Jen's first child, and he was born healthy and full of joy.

"He was such a happy baby," Ryan recalls.

Then, at just 18 months old, Conner's cheerful demeanor changed dramatically. He stopped eating well, began fainting and experienced multiple seizures. The once happy toddler was stricken with a mystery illness and his parents worried that Conner had suffered a brain or neck injury. They took him to the emergency department at Children's Colorado on Anschutz Medical Campus where he was given an MRI scan to find the source of the problem. The diagnosis was frightening.

Conner was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, the most common type of malignant brain tumor found in children, and was immediately scheduled for surgery. "All parents are terrified when you make this diagnosis," says Nicholas Foreman, M.D., Seebaum/Tschetter Chair of Pediatric Neuro-Oncology and Professor of Pediatrics at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children's Colorado, who was oversaw Conner's care.

Learn more about the Neuro-Oncology Program at Children's Hospital Colorado.

Just two days after the initial MRI, Conner underwent emergency brain surgery to remove the tumor. The next stage of his treatment would not be over nearly as quickly.

Life-saving treatment pioneered here

After a biopsy of the tumor was performed and the exact type of Medulloblastoma Conner was afflicted with was determined, Dr. Foreman immediately knew the best course of treatment for his young patient; after all, he and his team had pioneered the treatment themselves years earlier.

Called 'High Dose Triple Transplant Therapy,' the treatment Conner received involves multiple high doses of chemotherapy, followed by bone marrow transplants derived from the patient's own stem cells to replenish what was wiped out by the chemotherapy. The therapy was considered a significant breakthrough when it was developed because it does not involve radiation, which can have long-lasting, negative side-effects on young patients.

"If you irradiate a very young child, you will destroy their intellectual development," Dr. Foreman explains. "If you radiate someone, you've actually given them an increased cancer risk for their whole life. This therapy doesn't do that."

Not so long ago, the survival rate and outcomes for very young patients afflicted with the type of cancer Conner had were bleak.

"Prior to the mid-1990's, kids diagnosed with this type of Medulloblastoma were either not treated and died, or they were given conventional chemotherapy and did very poorly," Dr. Foreman says.

Today, 14 out of 15 children diagnosed with the same type of Medulloblastoma survive, thanks largely to the new treatment pioneered at Children's Colorado.

Chemotherapy and cake

Just three weeks after he underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor, Conner began chemotherapy treatment. He received a monthly round of high dose chemotherapy followed by bone marrow transplants and blood transfusions at the Blood Donor Center at Children's Colorado over the following six months. The chemotherapy treatments were rough on both Conner and his parents. He was hospitalized for multiple days each month after receiving chemotherapy, and the treatments seemed to drain the life out of him. But while the chemotherapy rounds sapped his strength, the bone marrow transplants and blood transfusions he received after brought back the cheerful Conner that Ryan and Jen knew well.

 "We could tell whenever he was crashing, but whenever he got a blood transfusion, he perked back up," Jen says.

Throughout the entire course of treatment, the staff at Children's Colorado went out of their way to make the experience as easy as possible, according to Ryan and Jen. They were flexible with scheduling treatments to work around the parents' busy lives, and they also taught Ryan and Jen how to administer some medications at home so that the family could make fewer trips to the hospital. Conner's fifth round of chemotherapy coincided with his birthday, so the staff threw him a party at the hospital and brought cake and presents.

When Conner finally finished his chemotherapy rounds, it was a bittersweet time for the family.

"We spent so much time at the hospital, when Conner finished treatment Jen actually said she was going to miss the friends she made among the staff, even though she was glad to not have to see them as often anymore," Ryan says.

A young adventurer in training

"Conner is in great shape now and has no lasting effects," Dr. Foreman says.

Now in preschool, Conner very recently learned to ride a bike and is busy exploring the world and being a thoughtful older brother. "He's got a ridiculous amount of energy, and he's very adventurous," Ryan notes.​