In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

April 11, 2017

Young Cancer Patient Shows What It Means to Be ‘Hunter Strong’

By In the Loop
In the face of a cancer diagnosis, young Hunter Gifford is showing those around him what it means to be "Hunter Strong."

Photo by Erin Young.

Lisa Gifford is a mother. She's also a pediatric nurse. So she knew something wasn't right with her youngest son, Hunter. "He was having trouble urinating," Lisa tells us. Initially, she chalked it up to a urinary tract infection. But his primary care provider ruled that out after Hunter's blood work came back fine. Later that day, Hunter developed a fever and was in so much pain he had trouble lying down. A trip to the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus would soon reveal why. After a series of tests, "the whole care team walked into his room," Lisa tells us. "I could tell they'd found something."

That something was a tumor. When Lisa heard the news, "I could hardly even take a breath," she tells us. Within days, 7-year-old Hunter would be diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. That diagnosis put Lisa, a nurse in Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo, on the other side of the bedside. Though she's currently on leave to care for Hunter, she says the experience has given her a new perspective she'll take with her when she returns to caring for patients and their families. "It's really humbling," she says.

It's also given her a new perspective on her employer. "Everyone in pediatrics at Mayo is wonderful," she says. "And the team in the Proton Beam Therapy Department is really something to be experienced." They're "geared toward kids," Lisa tells us. So much so that when Hunter asked to sit rather than lie down for his procedures, which included sedation, the team readily accommodated the request, even though that meant having an extra staff member on hand during each of Hunter's 31 treatments. "Kids going through cancer treatment don't have control over much, but the staff there give the kids as much autonomy as they can," Lisa says.

They also give kids as much normalcy as they can, Lisa tells us. One example: Hunter could have received a definitive diagnosis and begun treatment on Friday, Oct. 28. But staff told Lisa "three days won't make a difference in his treatment. Let him be a normal kid for three more days." Those days included a significant holiday in a child's life. "Having those extra days let Hunter enjoy Halloween with his brothers and gave us a chance to begin adjusting to the diagnosis," Lisa says.

In the months since, Hunter has endured 10 rounds of chemotherapy, those 31 rounds of proton beam radiation, and the challenging side effects that have accompanied both. He's also celebrated his 8th birthday and buoyed the adults around him with his unwavering faith and ready supply of jokes. ("Where does a snowman keep his money? A snow bank.")

Last month, Hunter completed his final day of proton beam therapy. Afterward, he stepped into the lobby of the Jacobson Building to ring the bell that signals the end of treatment. He was dressed as Darth Vader, an ensemble he told his mom he chose because "Darth Vader is tough, and he's a fighter just like me." As KTTC-TV reports, there was a "force" on hand to help Hunter celebrate that milestone. "It makes him excited to know people are supporting him," Lisa says, adding that Hunter treasures the many get-well cards that have been sent to him from friends, family and even strangers. "When he saw so many people had come to see him ring the bell, he told me, 'God answers our prayers every day.'"

You can learn more about Hunter's journey on his Hunter Strong Facebook page, which includes information on a May 13 benefit in his honor. Or, you can visit his CaringBridge site. (The April 11 entry has information on how to send a card to Hunter, if you're so inclined.) Then answer our prayers by leaving a comment below before you use the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.


Tags: Chemotherapy, Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Employee Stories, Ewing's Sarcoma, Lisa Gifford, Patient Stories, Proton Beam Therapy Program

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