Young Cancer Survivor Inspires Others

Hunter Jameson creates nonprofit foundation to help cancer patients at Valley Children’s

Hunter - Childhood Cancer Survivor

Something wasn’t right with Hunter Jameson. The usually energetic 8-year-old was listless and laboring to breathe.

His pediatrician suspected asthma. But when Hunter could barely round the bases in baseball – and fell asleep on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain – parents Michael and Catherine insisted on a better answer.

One chest X-ray later and the Jamesons were headed to Valley Children’s Hospital, where doctors revealed that a cancerous, grapefruit-sized tumor was crushing the boy’s heart and lungs.  

That trip was 14 years ago. Today, thanks to treatment from the only pediatric tertiary care medical center in Central California, Hunter is a healthy and happy student at the University of San Diego.

“Children’s is a really special place to me not just because of the amount of time I spent there, but because of the people who impacted me,” said Hunter, now 22. “And the nurses weren’t just nurses to me – they became really good friends.”

Hunter completed treatment in late 2003 but remains bonded to Valley Children’s through his nonprofit foundation and Valley Children’s Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program. That program – one of the few in California – uses a team approach in providing education, screening, detailed treatment histories and more for survivors into young adulthood.

More than 500 survivors have participated since the program formally launched in 2010. The need is great because most children survive cancer – about 80 percent live at least five years following their diagnosis. About two-thirds will experience long-term side effects.

“It’s definitely a lifelong process of continuing health,” said Dr. John Gates, pediatric hematologist/oncologist and director of the survivorship program. “We want them not only to survive cancer, but also to thrive in an adult environment.”

The program is an extension of Valley Children’s comprehensive inpatient and outpatient pediatric cancer and blood diseases services. Nationwide, Valley Children’s ranks in the top 10 percent in enrolling patients in therapeutic studies for the Children’s Oncology Group, the world’s largest organization exclusively dedicated to childhood and adolescent cancer research. This connection assures that Valley Children’s patients have access to the most advanced treatments and care.

So Hunter was in good hands when the Jamesons arrived at Valley Children’s on Sept. 7, 2001. He was so weak that, “I had to carry him into the Hospital,” his mother, Catherine, said.

Hunter was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit and started on high doses of chemotherapy – the drugs used to kill cancer cells. He was diagnosed with T cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This type of cancer develops in the lymphatic system – a critical component of the body’s disease-fighting immune system. When specialized white blood cells (like T cells) develop and multiply improperly, they create tumors in areas like the chest, neck or abdomen.

The Jameson family, including Hunter’s twin sister Chandler, was shaken by the news as they learned about treatment options. For Hunter, then in second grade, that meant rounds of intensive chemotherapy. At the beginning, he received treatment five days a week – four days in the Hospital and one day at home. Side effects from various drugs caused his hair to fall out and made him nauseous and puffy, but he remained upbeat.

“I never really thought of it as a deadly disease,” Hunter said of the cancer. “I just thought I was sick and I needed to get better.”

His outlook gave Catherine strength. “He said, ‘Mom, do me a favor. Don’t cry unless I do,’” she said. “And he never really did."

Hunter underwent treatment therapy for about two years. His medical team included Dr. Vonda Crouse, a longtime pediatric hematologist/oncologist whom Catherine described as “brilliant.”

Hunter said nurses like Kimberly Ling also contributed to an “amazing” experience at the Hospital. In part, they helped distract him during treatments so he felt more like he was visiting friends than undergoing medical procedures.

As Hunter’s condition improved, the family accepted a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to watch his beloved New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series. By the fourth grade, Hunter was considered cancer-free and Hospital visits and checkups gradually decreased. He began to resume a routine that included playing sports – with a chest protector at first. At San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, Hunter played both varsity baseball and football.

Though his cancer was gone, Hunter remembered the battle as he grew older. He began to think about creating a nonprofit foundation to help cancer patients at Valley Children’s.

“I didn’t want to just finish my treatment and never go back there,” he said. “I wanted to be a positive influence.”

Since forming in 2013, Hunter’s Hope International Foundation has raised more than $40,000 and helped more than two dozen childhood cancer patients and families. Hunter works closely with social workers at Valley Children’s Cancer and Blood Diseases Center to identify needy families.

“It’s amazing that Hunter has been able to process his experience and do something fabulous with it,” Dr. Gates said.

Today, Hunter is a college senior and finance major who plans to attend law school. Valley Children’s nurses and other staff helped him along that college path by writing recommendation letters and pointing out scholarship opportunities.

The family is grateful for all the care and assistance that Hunter has received from Valley Children’s. “We just feel like there was no better place to be,” Catherine said. “The caring, kindness and compassion of the staff there is just unbelievable.”