Dentist saves 5-year-old girl by finding tumor during routine cleaning

Dentist saves 5-year-old girl by finding tumor during routine cleaning
Hunter Jones, now 5, is cancer-free after a year and a half of treatment that started when her dentist found a growing tumor in the girl's jaw during a routine cleaning. (Source: Jay Jones/KOMO/CNN)

EVERETT, WA (KOMO/CNN) - A 5-year-old in Washington is cancer-free after an 18-month battle that started when her dentist found a growing tumor in the girl’s jaw at what was supposed to be a standard office visit.

When Hunter Jones, now 5, visited Dr. Harlyn Susarla for a routine dental cleaning 18 months after her last appointment at Stellar Kids Dentistry, she took a card with a heartfelt message for the dentist.

“I writed ‘I love you,’” Hunter said.

Finally, after completing treatment for cancer, the 5-year-old was able to return to the place it all started and thank her dentist. Harlyn Susarla met Hunter and her family in the lobby with hugs and hellos.

Dear Friends, We need your help! Hunter Rose Jones is a beautiful fun-loving 4 1/2 year old patient at Stellar Kids...

Posted by Stellar Kids Dentistry Everett on Monday, March 4, 2019

"I'm so thankful for you," said Kara Jones, Hunter’s mother. "You saved our daughter's life."

After noticing several loose teeth, which is unusual for a 4-year-old, at Hunter’s last dental appointment, Harlyn Susarla asked for a panoramic X-ray and discovered a growing tumor in the girl’s jaw.

"I was freaked out,” Kara Jones said. "I was at the dentist. You don't – tumor? No."

The Jones family went to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where a surgeon took a biopsy and confirmed Hunter had neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that develops from nerve cells.

"This is such an aggressive disease process. Early recognition and diagnosis is the key, I think, for treatment," said Dr. Seenu Susarla, a craniofacial surgeon at Seattle Children's.

The surgeon credits Hunter’s dentist with the early catch – a dentist who also happens to be his wife.

"I've always been proud of my wife," Seenu Susarla said. "She's certainly a lot smarter than I am, and this is just one more piece of evidence that suggests that."

During her cancer fight, Hunter spent 140 days at Seattle Children's Hospital. She had two tumor removals, five rounds of chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants, six rounds of immunotherapy and 12 rounds of radiation, according to her mother. (Source: Jay Jones/KOMO/CNN)
During her cancer fight, Hunter spent 140 days at Seattle Children's Hospital. She had two tumor removals, five rounds of chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants, six rounds of immunotherapy and 12 rounds of radiation, according to her mother. (Source: Jay Jones/KOMO/CNN)

The doctors Susarla were part of a large care team that treated Hunter over the next year and a half.

"We found out she had a tumor in her abdomen," said Jay Jones, Hunter’s father, “and it spread to her hip as well."

Hunter would spend a total of 140 days at Seattle Children’s for treatment.

“We had two tumor removals. We’ve had five rounds of chemo, two stem cell transplants,” Kara Jones said. “We’ve had 12 rounds of radiation, six rounds of immunotherapy.”

It was brutal. But Hunter's parents say she never wavered, bravely facing each obstacle until, finally, her cancer went into remission.

Her aggressive treatment caused hearing loss and other health issues, but for now, everyone is thankful for the find that saved Hunter’s life.

“The fact that this was something that was found in the dental chair – I’m grateful that I saw this and that she was able to get the care and the treatment that she needed,” Harlyn Susarla said. “Honestly, I probably think about her every day.”

Neuroblastoma accounts for 7 to 10 percent of childhood cancers, according to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Each year, 800 new cases are diagnosed in the United States. Most children with neuroblastoma are diagnosed before age 5.

Copyright 2019 KOMO, Jay Jones via CNN. All rights reserved. Gray News contributed to this report.