It started with a hard bruise on Xavier Howells’ thigh.
That persistent bruise led to a doctor’s visit, which led to additional testing. In Dec. 2017, Xavier – known as Iggy to his friends – was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the muscle tissue. At the time of the diagnosis, Iggy was just nine years old.
Iggy and his family prepared for treatment at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, with a care team led by Pediatric Oncologist Emily Greengard, MD.
Their treatment plan included chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, which was located in Iggy’s hamstring muscle in his leg. In Feb. 2018, Iggy had surgery to remove the tumor and part of the surrounding muscle. After surgery, Iggy underwent daily radiation therapy from February to May to kill any remaining cancer cells in his muscle.
“Iggy is such a strong kid. He did everything that we asked of him, and he never complained,” Greengard said.
After another round of preventative chemotherapy, Iggy’s scans came back with no evidence of cancer. “It was such good news,” said Nate Howells, Iggy’s father. “We were exhausted, and this was such a relief.” In August 2018, Iggy and his family celebrated the end of the regimen and prepared to get their lives back to normal. But it turns out their journey wasn’t over.
In October, Iggy and his dad came back for a routine follow-up visit. The follow-up scans revealed a mass on Iggy’s lung. The cancer had spread.
“It was devastating,” Nate said. “I had not even allowed myself to entertain the possibility of that outcome.” The family met with a thoracic surgeon the same day.
“Given the lung nodule, we needed to intensify things instead of relaxing them, so Iggy started treatment for high-risk rhabdomyosarcoma,” Greengard said. “He and his family are amazing. They have handled everything with remarkable grace.”
Nate remembers how much the team’s care and attention mattered. “When we walked in, it was like Iggy was a rock star, the way we were treated.” Iggy remained in good spirits. He cracked jokes with the doctors, nurses, and staff and found joy in every moment.
Although relapsed rhabdomyosarcoma is a more challenging diagnosis, Iggy was in the right place at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital to get the care he needed. “It was important for Iggy to be at a center that has expertise in sarcomas, and we are one of those centers,” Greengard said. “We bring all the necessary specialists together to ensure that our patients and families get the best care possible. This includes pediatric radiation oncologists, and radiologists and pathologists with expertise in sarcomas.”
Because of a longstanding and powerful partnership with Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, families at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital also have access to the latest leading-edge cancer treatments. Our hospital is also equipped with a long-term Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program that helps survivors navigate life after cancer.
Iggy’s new round of treatment began in November 2018. With it came a period of intense medical challenges and family tragedy. The chemo regimen required Iggy to stay in the hospital for five days at a time, and then go home for a week to recover before starting the cycle again. In order to care for Iggy, Nate resigned from his job as a teacher.
A few weeks into Iggy’s new treatment regimen, Iggy’s three-year-old brother Casi passed away after an extended illness. The next day, Iggy was due to start another punishing round of chemo. Nate, Iggy, and Iggy’s brothers and sisters came to the hospital that day, reeling with shock and grief.
“The team was so wonderful on that awful day,” Nate said. “Ann, one of the social workers at the hospital, was so good to my kids and to me.”
Treatments continued throughout the winter and spring, until June 22, 2019, when the family celebrated the end of Iggy’s treatment for the second time. End-of-therapy scans on July 1 showed no signs of cancer.
“I had every confidence, the whole time, that he was getting the best possible care,” Nate said. “When there was bad news, it was very clear that the doctors were compassionate. They were very honest but always very hopeful.”
The Howells family is now getting ready for a journey of another kind – a trip to Belize, made possible with the help of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Iggy, now 11 years old, has not lost his shining smile and indomitable spirit.
The care providers and staff at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital helped them get through an unbearable time, Nate Howells said.
“No one wants to be at the hospital – but it was a safe place, an encouraging place. Everyone was so positive, and it really helped.”