Cancer Survivorship Program gives teen the tools to battle the bully within

3/11/2014

Zach Howell won’t forget the summer of 2012. He was having what he calls “sleep issues” – bad headaches, nausea and vomiting. The 17-year-old St. Clair Shores resident was rushed to the Emergency Center at Beaumont Hospital, Grosse Pointe. The CT scan revealed the source of his severe head pain: brain cancer. The date of his diagnosis: July 7, 2012.


Zach’s trip to San Francisco to meet Robin Williams
was made possible by Make-A-Wish.

His medical team wasted no time. The next day, Beaumont Children’s Hospital neurosurgeon, Holly Gilmer, M.D., performed surgery on Zach in Royal Oak. According to Zach, she was able to remove about 90 percent of the tumor.

He refers to his glioblastoma multiforme as the “bully.”

After his surgery, Dr. Gilmer encouraged him to participate in a clinical trial. This was followed by numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy.

Glioblastoma multiforme, also referred to as GBM, is the most common cancerous brain tumor. Like bullies, these tumors are often aggressive.

In Zach’s case, his surgery and subsequent radiation and chemo treatments left the teen weak, bald and in need of physical and occupational therapy to improve his balance, gait, as well as speech therapy.

Beginning in September 2012, he received his therapies at Beaumont Rehabilitation Services in St. Clair Shores. And in March 2013, he was encouraged to participate in their Cancer Survivorship Exercise and Wellness Program. He participated in the program for ten months.

The Cancer Survivorship Exercise and Wellness Program is tailored to each patient’s needs. Physical and occupational therapists, specially trained in oncology rehabilitation, create an individualized wellness and exercise program. The emphasis is on improving movement, balance, promoting fitness and supporting a healthy lifestyle. The adult programs are offered in Sterling Heights, Royal Oak and St. Clair Shores. Beaumont Children’s Hospital offers a similar program for kids in Grosse Pointe, Royal Oak and West Bloomfield. This includes the Pediatric Long Term Follow-up Clinic, which is committed to the care of survivors of childhood cancer.

Physical therapist, Mary Alice Hewelt recalls, “Zach made tremendous progress during therapy. In the beginning, I remember him only tolerating 30 minutes of mat exercises and he barely had the endurance and strength to lift his legs or arms repetitively. Zach also had vision deficits and difficulty remembering activities from one treatment to the next. But toward the end of the Cancer Survivorship program, this past November and December, he was performing advanced activities performed by athletes and succeeding in classes at Wayne State University.”

Hewelt explains, “Our goals in therapy were driven by the goals any teenager his age would want to accomplish, including going to college, having a job, hanging out with friends and driving. We broke the activities down into manageable tasks. It offered him a safe and nonthreatening environment to help his body relearn what he already knew. He also participated in the Driver Rehabilitation Program in Royal Oak.”

Of his time in the exercise and wellness program, Zach says, “I definitely enjoyed it.” The workouts included lifting weights, planks and time on an elliptical machine which not only benefited him physically, but also improved his self-esteem.

Explains Zach, “Because of my inactivity after my diagnosis and the steroids increasing my appetite, my weight jumped from 180 to 230 lbs. I was self-conscious about my body. The increase in activity, exercise and strength training allowed me to lose most of that extra 50 lbs. I felt a lot better, more confident and positive.”

In fact, with his newfound strength and energy he says, “I felt I was beating my cancer, the bully within. I now have the tools to fight back.”

Hewelt adds, “Considering everything his body has been through, he’s got a very positive and uplifting attitude. In fact, if you ask him how he’s doing, Zach always replies, ‘I am great and amazing.’ He’s grateful to be alive and his positive attitude is infectious. He always seems to inspire everyone around him to work harder and do more.”

Zach, now 19, is grateful to his family, friends and medical team for supporting him through his battle with cancer. He continues to manage his exercise and wellness independently, but knows a supervised program or traditional therapies are available to him.