Cormac Morris was just over a year old when he was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, a rare cancerous tumor that starts in the liver. Following treatment and successful liver transplant surgery at Cincinnati Children's, Cormac, now 8, is doing great and will soon join our Cancer Survivorship Program.
Five years ago, “the bottom dropped out of our lives,” said Cormac’s mom, Beckett, as she recalls hearing the initial cancer diagnosis and all the fears associated with it.
“Of course we were profoundly sad and scared. We felt completely powerless,” she added. “There was a lot of sitting in shock, a lot of tears. Then everything else in life stood still until we could start his treatment.”
Cormac began chemotherapy soon after diagnosis. Thankfully, a donor match was found within three months and soon after Cormac underwent a successful liver transplant followed by more chemotherapy.
During every step, Beckett and her husband, Matt, were there asking questions and talking with Cormac’s care team.
“We felt like our input was listened to,” said Beckett. “As far as his overall treatment plan, we knew that the doctors knew what they were doing, so we didn’t really challenge their decisions. We felt like the staff worked with us on our day-to-day concerns.”
Beckett admits that this time in their life has become a bit of a fog when it comes to memories. Thankfully, they had family in both Louisville (where they live), and Cincinnati to offer assistance. Their older daughter, Claire, stayed in Louisville with her grandparents while Cormac received this treatment in Cincinnati. The whole family would get together on weekends.
“Looking back, I think, how did we get through all of that?” said Beckett. “We were fortunate that we had family here in Louisville. We had help on both ends. We are very fortunate that it worked out that way.”
The Morris family decided the 100-mile drive north to Cincinnati was well worth it in order to get the care Cormac needed.
“We wanted Cormac to get all his care in one place in order to avoid silos and poor communication between providers. So we looked at the various facilities that do pediatric liver transplants,” said Beckett. “Cincinnati is easily closest to home. And then we learned what an outstanding facility it is. So we chose Cincinnati Children’s for proximity, availability of all the subspecialties, and quality.”
“We couldn’t have been happier with the care we received. Some of the staff at Cincinnati Children’s feels like family,” added Matt.
The Liver Tumor Program is co-directed by Greg Tiao, MD, and Jim Geller, MD, who also serve as co-chairs for the COG international study of pediatric liver cancer (AHEP-1531).
Geller, a pediatric oncologist and an expert in liver tumor therapy and new anticancer drug development, says the number of patients their team sees regularly is increasing, and when considering hepatoblastoma patients only represent one percent of all pediatric oncology patients, the opportunity to build a dedicated program to address such patient’s needs, and have patients and families seek out such care, is a privilege.
“Not all need liver transplants, but we’ve got a lot of complicated kids,” said Geller. “It’s been wonderful to see Cormac thrive into a vibrant, curious, active young boy. He fought through – very early in life – incredible challenges. Very aggressive chemotherapy. Very aggressive surgery. And yet he had the inner strength to not only persevere, but thrive.”
Besides their immediate and extended families, Beckett and Matt said they found all the support they needed inside the hospital walls.
“In the hospital, from the whole care team – respite, massage, therapy – we definitely felt very much supported. We didn’t reach out [elsewhere]. We were so involved in the treatment and zoned-in on Cormac,” said Beckett.
Cormac did not have a typical treatment plan, according to Geller. Post-transplant, he underwent additional chemotherapy to finish his hepatoblastoma treatment, followed by additional chemo (ICE) to help treat the more aggressive cancer that had spread to Cormac’s lymph nodes.
“We felt this individuated approach was justified for Cormac based on our understanding of him and his risk factors,” said Geller.
Cormac’s parents said they are forever indebted to Dr. Geller and his team. They participated in the inaugural Cincinnati Children's Hepatoblastoma Day in November 2018. The event brought together 11 families representing 10 states.
“It was fascinating to learn more about the disease and the kind of research that is being done. It was also very special to meet other families who had suffered from it," said Beckett.
The next Hepatoblastoma Day is planned for spring 2021. Location to be determined. The ultimate goal of these meetings is to create a national registry – possibly even international – and focus on relapse cases and patients who don’t follow the standard care path.
Today, the Morrises are now focused on the here and now, which includes Cormac’s medication: an immunosuppressant twice a day, and making new memories.
“We’re in a very good place, with Cormac. He’s a smart little guy. He’s doing great,” she said.
(Updated: August 2020)
Cormac, 6, enjoys playing with friends and his 9-year-old sister, Claire. He’s into karate, takes a ninja class and loves the TV show “America Ninja Warrior.”