Zach's Chili Challenge About Zach

An Event of The Morgan Adams Foundation
McNichols Civic Center Building 
Saturday, March 3, 2018, 6:00 - 9:00PM

Zach's Courageous Battle

In 2008, Zach Canaday was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma brain tumor at the age of 9. This diagnosis was incredibly traumatic for the entire family, but Zach wasn’t considered a high-risk patient because the cancer had not spread to any other areas of his body and, at this point in time, there was an 80-85% cure rate for this tumor type.

Zach was brave and handled the treatment amazingly well. He endured surgery, 31 days of radiation, and 9 rounds of chemotherapy. He was on the verge of celebrating five years of being off treatment at the end of 2014 when the unthinkable happened – his cancer returned. Dr. Nick Foreman, Zach’s oncologist, was shocked: "relapses with standard risk medulloblastoma patients are uncommon and shockingly rare at this late time point." 

Despite his initial shock at Zach’s relapse, Dr. Foreman immediately began growing some of Zach’s cells in the lab in order to create a personalized treatment plan. Zach’s cancer had recurred in his brain, but there were also new tumors spreading down his spine. The prognosis wasn’t good.

According to Dr. Foreman, “In the past when we’ve seen this type of metastatic recurrence, it is basically untreatable and the survival rate is about six months.” Six months was certainly not what the Canadays wanted to hear, but they didn’t lose hope.

Zach resumed treatment immediately. “I would pick him up after school, he would do chemotherapy in the car, and then we would head straight for radiation,” Zach’s mom, Catherine, explains. Meanwhile, Dr. Foreman got to work in the lab. He extracted DNA from Zach’s tumor cells and through the process we call “chipping,” he compared that genetic information to hundreds of other patients’ cells. Dr. Foreman explains the importance of this process, “We can look at twenty thousand genes at once and, in Zach’s case, a set of genes stood out. So then we looked at what treatments could target those exact genes and it ended up being two drugs that had never been tried in combination before for this kind of a case.” This unique combination of drugs caused an immediate and dramatic reaction. “Literally, in three months, every single one of Zach’s tumors had disappeared,” Dr. Foreman said. “Not just reduced in size—they were absolutely gone."

After a lot of celebrating, Zach got back to being a high schooler. His junior year passed quickly with continued clear scans and the completion of chemotherapy. Zach excelled in his classwork, made his high school’s golf team, attended Prom, scored a 31 on the ACT, and got his driver’s license. Unfortunately, Zach’s battle with cancer was not yet over.

In September 2016, shortly after his 17th birthday, Zach went in for a routine, nine months off-treatment scan that showed a second relapse. There were at least two new spots, one on his brain and one, possibly two, on his spine. A third cancer diagnosis is devastating, but neither Zach, his family, nor his team of doctors have given up.

Within days of that scan, Zach began a new chemotherapy drug via infusion and resumed an oral chemo he had taken after the first relapse. Dr. Foreman also extracted some cells to search for any new or different mutations that might have appeared. Despite taking the two chemo drugs for two months, Zach’s scans this past December showed that the spots were still growing. Dr. Foreman and Dr. Liu proposed a plan to apply pinpoint radiation to the two spots on Zach’s spine for 20 days and discussed some possible trials with Zach and his parents.

The week following the scans, Zach received acceptance letters from the Colorado School of Mines and Regis University. The Canadays decided to re-radiate the spots on Zach’s spine, but just days before radiation was set to begin, Catherine contacted a doctor in Augusta, Georgia about an immunotherapy trial for relapsed brain tumor patients led by Dr. Ted Johnson. Zach qualified for the trial, so radiation was put on hold while the Canadays traveled to the Children’s Hospital of Georgia at Augusta University the next week to meet with Dr. Johnson. Zach began the trial immunotherapy drug, Indoximod, on January 5th and started the 20 day course of radiation upon his return home to Colorado.

Zach traveled to Augusta at the beginning of February for scans and meetings with Dr. Johnson. The scans showed significant shrinkage of the areas that received radiation, including the two largest and most concerning spots on his spinal cord. The spot on Zach’s brain may have grown, but Dr. Johnson has not called it a tumor yet as it could be due to variances in the MRI scans.

Zach and his family will return to Augusta in March for scans and meeting with Dr. Johnson. Until then, Zach will get to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Colorado Rockies’ Spring Training with other kids and teenage patients from the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Hospital Colorado. The group will travel from Denver to Scottsdale, AZ where they will attend a Rockies spring training game, receive personalized Rockies gear and autographs, and get to spend some time with players and coaches. Zach will also be focusing on his final semester of high school and is looking forward to his trip to Georgia in April during one of the biggest PGA golf tournaments of the year, The Masters.

Bring the Heat, Bring the Hope

Michelle Giancamilli, a chef in Colorado Springs and Zach’s aunt, has watched helplessly as Zach has battled cancer for his life time and again. She explains, for nearly nine years, “I have watched my sister and her family live a new “normal” life in the wake of Zach's cancer diagnosis, always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

For pediatric brain cancer patients, time is often measured in scans. They’re spaced out – usually months apart. Reaching milestones such as “clear scans one year off treatment” are celebrated, but always cautiously. Getting to five years off treatment with clear scans is probably the biggest milestone in the battle against brain cancer. So, in 2014, when Zach was on the brink of hitting five years cancer-free and instead was facing a relapse, the other shoe finally dropped. And it was devastating for everyone. In Michelle’s words, “So close to the finish line of his first fight, there it was again, another hurdle in his race.”

But Zach was determined and he battled again, showing a deep courage and resilience that can only be described as inspiring. Zach took control of the areas of life he could: “He went to school almost every day, scored off the charts on both his ACTs and SATs, was inducted into the National Honor Society, and plays on the golf team."

When Zach’s cancer returned for a third time, Michelle asked her sister and Zach’s mom, Catherine, what she could do, to which Catherine said “Find a cure!” So that’s what Michelle decided to try and do.

Zach’s Chili Challenge is a food, beer, and spirit competition, the profits of which will be used to directly fund life-saving pediatric brain cancer research at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado Cancer Center. What does cancer research have to do with chili? In Michelle’s words, “Food is comfort, love, and family. All things that are crucial in the fight against cancer. Food brings people together, so I’m asking you to join us in funding childhood cancer research in honor of Zach. Please join us to Bring The Heat and Bring The Hope to Zach and all other kids fighting cancer!”