Identical twins fight identical cancers

September 29, 2016  //  FOUND IN: UMHS News,

Twins Zane and Zac Taylor with their sister, Zoe.

Since the day they came home from the hospital in matching newborn monkey outfits, Zane and Zac Taylor have done everything together.

They shared a bedroom, learned to walk and talk in tandem and started preschool in the same classroom.

Now, the identical 5-year-old twins are experiencing the unimaginable together.

They are both battling cancer.

Just 13 days apart in February, the brothers were each diagnosed with leukemia and have spent much of the past few months side by side at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where they are receiving treatment.

“It doesn’t even seem possible,” dad Bob Taylor said. “It’s so shocking to comprehend that both of your kids are fighting cancer at the same time. Even as I’m saying it right now, it doesn’t seem like it could be true.”

‘The worst kind of déjà vu’

When Zac came down with a rash, fever and extreme lethargy this winter, it appeared to be a bad case of hand-foot-and-mouth disease. But when symptoms persisted two weeks later, his doctor ordered blood tests.

“When they said the test results confirmed it was cancer … it just changes your whole world,” Bob Taylor said.

Then, less than two weeks later, came more shocking news.

The Taylors had taken Zane to the doctor for a low-grade fever because of concerns he may pose a threat to his brother’s vulnerable immune system.

Just to be safe, their pediatrician ran the same blood tests Zac had gotten. Bob assured his wife, Marty, that it was just out of caution — not because the doctors thought Zane had the same disease.

But that night they got the dreaded call again. Doctors were as stunned as the Taylors when they told them Zane had the same type of cancer as his brother.

“It was the worst kind of déjà vu,” Bob Taylor said. “It just didn’t seem possible.”

‘Unbelievable’ odds

The cancer risk for an identical twin of a child with leukemia is significantly higher than the risk for any other sibling or a fraternal twin, said Mott pediatric oncologist Rama Jasty Rao, M.D. Although this risk remains until age 6, it decreases with age. The greatest risk is seen in the first year of life.

The risk of developing leukemia for the twin of a child with the disease is also higher for B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). For nearly 80 to 85 percent of children with ALL, the leukemia starts in B cells. Zane and Zac have the rarer T-cell ALL.

That’s why the double diagnoses shocked even Rao.

“The odds of both twins getting this type of cancer at age 5 are so small. It was very unexpected,” she said.

Rao said the boys’ care teams are continually amazed by how “phenomenal, patient and calm” the parents have been during the situation, and both boys are responding very well to chemotherapy.

The Taylors have also donated some of their sons’ cord blood for pediatric cancer research at Mott.

“Because they are twins, samples of their cord blood shed a lot of light on how genetic factors may contribute to cancer development,” Rao said.

“We know these abnormalities started in utero but just now transformed to full-blown leukemia, so we can study the pathways of how and why this happened.”

Healing and hope

Treatment has been undeniably difficult for the Taylors, but they say their sons are mostly back to being themselves during breaks in between chemotherapy.

Zane loves baking, watching food channels, hosting his own imaginary cooking show and even offering tips to the cook at his favorite pizza place. Zac, the more reserved of the two, loves Peppa Pig, playing with his brother and 4-year-old sister, Zoe, and swimming. The boys are mostly inseparable, their parents say.

Marty Taylor said the boys just know they “have bad guys” in their bodies, and their time at Mott is necessary to get rid of them.

“I’m so amazed by how strong they are,” Bob Taylor said. “No matter how bad they’re feeling, they still shine with their great personalities. They are both so loving and courageous.”

Daughter Zoe has also “been incredible during this difficult time.”

“She is so loving towards her brothers and is always willing to help with whatever they may need,” Bob Taylor said.

The Taylors moved from Nebraska to South Lyon, Michigan, last September. They said they are overwhelmed by the support from their family, church and their new community, along with support from people around the world who have followed Marty’s blog posts on their journey.

“We have an amazing support team. We are just so grateful for friends and family and the nurses and doctors who have taken such good care of our children,” Marty Taylor said. “You can’t get through these things by yourself.”

Children like the Taylors stand to benefit the most from cancer research. Help change the game for children by supporting Block Out Cancer month at Mott, which helps raise awareness and money for pediatric cancer research.

“As difficult as this is, we’ve seen how many others are going through things just as tough or tougher. We want to do anything we can do to help shine a light on the need for cancer research,” Bob Taylor said.

“As a friend recently told us, ‘When it’s all said and done, your story is not going to be cancer. It’s going to be about healing and hope.’”