Zach VanderWeide poses for a photo with Dr. James Fahner.
When Zach VanderWeide, left, was 2 years old, he had his cancer treated and cured by Dr. James Fahner. He met Dr. Fahner years later by chance, and Dr. Fahner remembered this brave little boy. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

James Fahner, MD, division chief, pediatric hematology/oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, recently had a pleasant surprise that reaffirmed his life’s work.

Dr. Fahner was at a fundraising dinner when his waiter, a handsome, fit, young man introduced himself and said, “Dr. Fahner, do you remember me? You cured my Wilms’ tumor when I was 2 years old!”

Of course Dr. Fahner remembered him; it was Zach VanderWeide. Zach had been diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor at 9 months old. He underwent chemotherapy and surgery to remove one of his kidneys, where the tumor was located.

Each year, he visited Dr. Fahner at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for followup exams.

“He was such a cool guy,” Zach said. “Dr. Fahner made my checkups bearable and fun. He always seemed so excited to see me and made me feel special. For a little kid, that was important.”

Today Zach is a strong, healthy student at Grand Valley State University.

“Seeing Zach again and knowing how well he is doing made my whole month,” Dr. Fahner said. “That is why our work is so rewarding!

“Zach’s story is an excellent example of how pediatric research can transform patient care and truly save lives,” added Dr. Fahner. “Wilms’ tumor is a marquee example of how children’s cancer treatment has gone from catastrophes to cures in just 20 to 30 years—a lethal cancer that is now so highly curable.”

The treatment of Wilms’ tumor underscores the vital importance of large national cooperative group clinical research trials. The national Wilms’ Tumor Study, now part of the Children’s Oncology Group, helped to develop, implement and refine the treatment advances that have since become the standard of care, with cure rates of 90 percent and better.

“We are all working with just one focus—curing childhood cancer,” he said.

Fortunately, there are more and more young adults like Zach who have survived a childhood cancer and are busy living life to the fullest.

“I am so blessed that my cancer was diagnosed so early and that the physicians knew what to do to cure it,” Zach said. “When I was little, I didn’t realize how big of a deal this was, but I do today. I’m extremely fortunate to be healthy and able to do all the things I want to do.”