British Columbia·Something Good

'You have given us the greatest gift': B.C. doctor thanked for life-saving cancer research

An Alberta mom says her son Ashton is alive today after a stage 4 cancer diagnosis because of research into rare tumours in kids, so she called the doctor to say thank you.

'You have given us the greatest gift,' says mom who credits her child's survival to cancer research

The Leeds family. Ashton Leeds was five years old when he was diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer.  ( Lauren Raylene Photography)

Something Good is a series on CBC's The Early Edition that tells stories to help restore your faith in humanity.

Medical professionals don't always get to hear from the people whose lives they have changed, but one Alberta mother finally had the chance to thank the Vancouver-based doctor whose research helped save the life of her young son. 

Kayley Leeds's son, Ashton, was five when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 thyroid cancer in 2014. 

This past week, Leeds spoke with Dr. Poul Sorensen of the B.C. Cancer Research Centre for the first time, when she phoned in to CBC's The Early Edition

"You have given us the greatest gift," Leeds said to Sorensen, who was live in studio with host Stephen Quinn. 

"Every new day that we get to spend together as a family, making more memories, it's because of you and your research."

Bleak prognosis

When Ashton was first diagnosed, the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, chest and throughout his lungs.

"We were just shocked," said Kayley Leeds. "We couldn't believe it because he looked so good. There were no warning signs other than the lump in his neck."

After extensive surgery and radioactive iodine treatments in Toronto, the cancer continued to spread and was no longer responding to treatment.

The prognosis was bleak, but in 2017 the Leeds received a phone call that eventually changed the course of Ashton's cancer.  

Kayley Leeds says her son Ashton is alive today because of the research Dr. Sorensen has done in the field of childhood cancer. (Submitted by Kayley Leeds)

A researcher from the Kids Cancer Sequencing (KiCS) program in Toronto phoned to tell them they were starting a genetic database for rare pediatric cancers.

A couple of months later, Ashton's doctor in Calgary called to say the Toronto researchers had identified his cancer — it was a rare genomic fusion Sorenson had discovered at the B.C. Cancer Research Centre, and there was a drug trial for a new treatment.

Sorenson's work helped create the first-of-its-kind treatment, which was recently approved by Health Canada.

He calls the drug, which was created by U.S.-based company Loxo Oncology, "super effective." 

Dr. Poul Sorensen is a professor of pathology at UBC and a scientist at the B.C. Cancer Research Centre. (BC Cancer Foundation)

Leeds says the drug's impact on her son was obvious.

"The transformation in him was incredible," Leeds said. "He's able to be a normal 10-year-old, running around with his friends."

A chance to say thanks

Leeds and her family were recently made aware of Sorensen's groundbreaking work, but they have never spoken to him directly.

The family's gratitude was not lost on Sorensen.

A happy and healthy Ashton Leeds. (Submitted by Kayley Leeds)

"Believe me, you've made me feel very good and it gives some credence to the idea of studying rare tumours in kids and what it means for the greater society and patients like your son," he said.

"There's something amazing when the work you do actually reaches back and helps patients ... that's so incredibly gratifying."

Listen to the full story here:

Kayley Leeds says her son Ashton is alive today because of the research Dr. Sorensen has done within childhood cancer. Ashton was put on a clinical trial based on his work after he was diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer with a very grim prognosis. 9:21

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With files from the Early Edition