The Sound of Resilience: Toddler Beats Cancer, Loses Hearing
Pierce James’ battle with cancer cost him his hearing, but he’s teaching us all a lesson in resilience. His story shines a light on the work of audiology and the importance of hearing health as we celebrate National Audiology Awareness Month in October.
By Ashley Antle
It is a heartbreaking position for any parent to be in — knowing that a potentially life-saving drug treatment may also cost your child the ability to hear. This was the difficult reality for Brant and Ashley James after their son, Pierce, now 3, was diagnosed with a rare cancer.
In his nearly 4 years of life, Pierce James, who his family calls Fierce Pierce, has faced more challenges than many adults experience in an entire lifetime. He was born at the edge of viability at 25 weeks gestation and spent 83 days in a neonatal intensive care unit. Even so, Pierce thrived as an infant and toddler despite some delays due to his prematurity.
But four days before his 2nd birthday, the James family received devastating news.
Just as Brant and Ashley were on the mend from a bout with COVID, Pierce seemed to be coming down with the virus as well. So Brant took his son to an urgent care close to their home in Rockwall to get checked out. He was soon told it wasn’t COVID. Instead, physicians suspected something much more serious and arranged for Pierce to be transferred to a nearby hospital.
“About four hours later, I received a phone call from the doctor and my husband, and the words out of the doctor’s mouth was, ‘We have some bad news to tell you,’” Ashley said. “At that moment, they told me that they were pretty confident that Pierce had cancer.”
In fact, Pierce had a rare liver cancer called hepatoblastoma. It was classified as stage 4, metastasized to his lungs and required aggressive chemotherapy to treat.
Risk and Reward
Throughout the course of his treatment, Pierce experienced several setbacks, some of them life-threatening. But one complication was particularly difficult for Ashley to reconcile.
Pierce’s chemotherapy protocol included a drug called cisplatin. While it is effective at killing cancer, it is also an ototoxic medication, meaning it can damage the inner ear and cause hearing loss. Thanks to the chemotherapy protocol, Pierce is now cancer-free, but he does have permanent and profound hearing loss.
“The cancer is gone and we're believing it's never ever coming back,” Ashley said. “But the hearing loss, without a miracle from God, is irreversible. It's not going to change and it’s just very hard. I've come to terms with it, but it's still very hard for me that my baby has lost his hearing because, I'm like, hasn't he suffered enough?”
Once the cancer was under control, Brant and Ashley turned their attention to dealing with Pierce’s hearing loss. As a then 2-year-old, Pierce was at a critical point for speech and language development. His parents wanted to be as persistent with audiology interventions as they were with chemotherapy. The family turned to Cook Children’s Pediatric Audiology services for help.
“There are certain chemotherapies that cause hearing loss in children and adults. So we're very involved with Hematology and Oncology,” said Lisa Vaughan, AuD, manager of Cook Children’s Audiology services. “A lot of times we do testing prior to the kids starting chemo. We get a baseline hearing test for every kid before they start, and then we monitor them throughout all of their treatment.”
Sometimes, if hearing loss is suspected, treatment can be adjusted. Other times, as in Pierce's case, hearing loss is the lesser of two evils.
“It's really hard because it's just one more thing for these families,” Dr. Vaughan said. “Your child has cancer and we now have to watch their hearing. You're going to go through some really horrible treatments, and then when we're done with this and things are better, we may be saying your child’s hearing is permanently damaged. It’s a hard conversation because these families have been through so much.”
Cook Children’s Audiology services moved quickly to help Pierce. He completed his final round of chemotherapy in September 2022 and, by the end of that month, also had his first set of hearing aides.
The New Age of Sound Waves
Each year, one to three out of every 1,000 babies are born with hearing loss. Others experience hearing loss from trauma or as a result of medical treatment.
Because of developments in audiology technology there is hope for hearing-impaired children. Dr. Vaughan says with early intervention, children with hearing loss perform as well as their hearing peers academically.
“We can do the surgical cochlear implant as early as nine months to get a baby hearing great so that they can compete with their hearing peers,” Dr. Vaughan said. “The other big thing on the horizon is unilateral loss and being able to implant a cochlear device in just one ear. In the past we've thought hearing from one ear will suffice. But what we've realized over the last 15 years is that kids with hearing loss in one ear have lots of trouble in the classroom because of background noise and localization. Now we can make both ears equal.”
Hearing aids have come a long way, too. Gone are the days of manually turning the volume or frequencies on hearing aids up and down using a screwdriver. Now, hearing aids are sleeker, come in multiple colors, are equipped with bluetooth technology and are digitally programmed to allow individuals to hear everything from the tiniest frequency to the biggest sound.
Cook Children’s Audiology services offer these interventions, as well as bone conduction implantable hearing devices and a full range of auditory testing. They also provide protective devices such as custom earplugs, like those that help protect the hearing of musicians while also allowing them to hear each musical note.
“Musician plugs have a filter on the end that allows musicians to hear the sound but at a lower volume. They do not distort or affect the quality of the music,” Dr. Vaughan explained. “We see a lot of performers now with monitors in their ears. Those are also to protect their hearing so they can perform longer. These are great for kids in high school bands or those that like listening to loud music.”
Early Ear Intervention
Protecting your child’s hearing and having your newborn screened for hearing loss are the two most important things parents can do for their child’s audiology health and for their speech and language development.
Newborn hearing screenings are required at any birthing center with 50 or more births per year. If a baby fails the screening at birth, they can be rescreened at one month. If they fail the second screening, a diagnostic evaluation can confirm hearing loss by three months and intervention can begin by six months, giving a child the best chance at language development on par with their hearing peers.
“Without that, when we wait until they are two or three and discover their words aren’t sounding great or they aren’t talking at all, then their brains have missed two to three years of learning,” Dr. Vaughan said. “It’s really hard to backtrack to correct. Newborn hearing screening is so very important. If we do the hard work on the front end and get things moving, hearing impaired children perform at equal levels to fully hearing children.”
The James family’s urgency to have Pierce fitted for hearing aids as soon as possible following cancer treatment set their once-hearing child on a course to recover as much speech and language development as possible. Since the completion of cancer treatment one year ago, Pierce has relearned to crawl and walk, and recovered many fine motor skills. He’s beginning to vocalize a number of sounds, too, including the sweetest sound to every mother’s ears — her baby calling for “mama.”
Cook Children's Audiology Services
If you suspect hearing loss in your child, talk to their pediatrician for a hearing evaluation, or contact Cook Children’s Audiology services. Here’s what to watch for:
- Does not react to loud noises.
- Fails to respond when called by name.
- Does not turn toward the source of sound after reaching 6 months of age.
- Does not utter single words such as “mama” or “dada” by their first year.
- Appears to hear some sounds but not others.
- Experiences delayed speech development.
- Speech is unclear or difficult to understand.
- Struggles with following instructions.
- Frequently asks, “Huh?” or “What?”
- Raises the volume excessively when watching TV or using electronic devices.