Teenage Zakk Hutton has been battling leukaemia. Zoe Chamberlain tells a story of hope, courage and love.
“Am I going to die?”
This was the question brave teenager Zakk Hutton asked doctors after being told he had acute leukaemia.
No parent ever wants to think of losing a child but to hear those words hammered home the severity of Zakk’s condition to his parents Sue and Kelvin.
He was just 14 when he was diagnosed with the cancer in March 2006.
“It was like our whole world fell apart,” says full-time mum Sue, aged 40, from Cannock.
“The feeling was indescribable, like someone had pulled the rug from under our feet.
“We knew nothing about leukaemia and so we thought the worst. We thought this is it, this is the end.
“Zakk asked the doctors ‘am I going to die?’”
The doctors told Zakk and his parents that, although they could not make any guarantees, they did have a good success rate with the disease.
Zakk underwent 12 months of intensive treatment at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, to which he responded well.
But sadly the drugs affected his mobility and this left him in a wheelchair for six months. This was devastating for an active boy who had previously enjoyed scuba diving, skiing and motorbike racing.
“One of the drugs stopped him from walking due to muscle wastage in his legs,” says Sue.
“Being such an active person, he was very frustrated by that.
“He couldn’t go out and do a lot. His lifestyle and all the hobbies he loved had to change.
“That said he has coped amazingly well with his treatment.”
This was one teenager who wasn’t going to take his diagnosis lying down. Instead he fought back, and sought a new hobby that wouldn’t involve walking: gliding.
Two weeks ago, to celebrate his 16th birthday, he amazed everyone by performing his first solo glide – and is now vowing to become a commercial pilot.
“We’re so proud of Zakk,” says Sue.
“I wasn’t nervous when he went up on his own which was strange because I used to be scared to death when I watched him race motorbikes.
“He was so confident and competent, I had every faith in him.
“Zakk having leukaemia has changed our outlook on life. We don’t put things off anymore, we live for the now.”
Zakk glides at the Midland Gliding Club on the Long Mynd, South Shropshire.
His instructor, Mike Greenwood, says: “Zakk has been an excellent pupil and was a competent pilot in a very short time.
“He had been ready to fly solo for some time. Frustratingly for him we cannot legally send anyone solo before their 16th birthday.
“On his actual birthday bad weather stopped all flying but on Saturday it was clear and calm.
“After a couple of dual check flights I sent him off on his own. He made two perfect flights to earn his glider pilot’s ‘Wings’.”
Sue adds: “Zakk tends to pick things up very quickly. You’re supposed to do 40 hours’ gliding before you can glide solo, but by 10 hours he was already there.
“It was a fantastic day when he went up on his own. He had waited such a long time, everyone made a big fuss.
“We thought he would just do a circuit and come down but he was up there for 10 minutes trying to get more lift and having a good look around.
“The instructors said it was the perfect flight.”
Sue and Kelvin, aged 45 and a driver, noticed Zakk, their only child, seemed ill when he returned from a school skiing trip to Austria a couple of years ago.
Sue says: “When he got off the bus at school that day, we expected him to be glowing with health, having come back from a week in the sun and the snow.
“But he looked thin and tired. I couldn’t believe he’d lost such a lot of weight. He had no appetite and was living off an apple a day.
“I thought perhaps he was just being a typical teenager and maybe this was his attempt to diet. But he told me he just wasn’t hungry.
“He went for blood tests and they came back saying he had acute leukaemia. It turned out his spleen was enlarged and had gone across his stomach, which was why he wasn’t hungry.”
Zakk is now in remission but is still undergoing intravenous chemotherapy once a month and lumber puncture, where drugs are injected into his spine to make sure the cancer does not spread.
It is hoped he will be able to cease his treatment in July, and that his mobility will improve when he comes off the drugs.
“He still struggles with his mobility,” says Sue. “He drags his one leg and doesn’t walk straight and upright. He kind of rocks and plods.
“But he’s learning to drive and that will give him more independence once he has passed his test.
“The doctors have said his mobility should get better after his treatment is finished but it will never be as it was before.”
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Zakk hopes to pursue a career as a commercial pilot.
“Zakk lost about three months at Chasetown Specialist Sports College as a result of his treatment, then he started going back for half days,” says Sue.
“Now he goes in full time but he doesn’t do PE because of the running around. He has private tuition then instead to try to bring him back up to speed. If he is not well, he comes home.
“The school has been excellent. They gave him work to do at home. He is working really hard ready for his GCSEs as he wants to stay in education to get the grades to be a pilot.
“His friends and the rest of the family have been really supportive. He says he has more friends now than he did before.”
* An average of 2,400 new cases of acute leukaemia are diagnosed every year in England and Wales. The outlook for children with leukaemia is generally good with suitable treatment.