Centennial's Zach Lederer plays football despite a brain tumor and a ventricular shunt in his skull

Centennial senior Zach Lederer, who has a brain tumor and is risking his life to play football, discusses his battle with cancer. His parents John and Christine talk about the dangers and risks Zach faces. (Additional photographs provided by the Lederer family.)
By Jason Mackey
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 12:28 AM

The easiest thing for Centennial senior Zach Lederer would have been to suppress this desire, to ignore the urge to play football after undergoing brain surgery when he was 11, an operation that left a ventricular shunt embedded in the back of his skull, running down his spine and into his abdomen. Doctors are no longer certain the shunt is carrying fluid from his brain, yet they acknowledge it could puncture at any time, requiring yet another surgery. Lederer also had never before played organized football.

But Lederer has always been an athlete, obsessed with soccer, basketball and baseball, and considers football a way to conquer his ordeal- three months split between two hospitals, a week in a medically induced coma, radiation - and prove that there was no way he was going to let a brain tumor dictate his life.

"I didn't want to live in a bubble and worry about every little thing that may happen to my head," said Lederer, 17, who is listed on the team's roster as 5 feet, 10 inches and 150 pounds. "I wanted to live life to the fullest."

Lederer remembers being at Johns Hopkins Hospital, undergoing multiple tests and wondering why nobody could make the pain stop. And at one point, in the middle of a December night six years ago, John and Christine Lederer were told that their only son would "take a turn for the worse very quickly."

The next morning, however, the Lederer family was informed that Ben Carson, a world-renowned brain surgeon, had examined Zach's tumor - and saw hope. Carson installed the shunt, resulting in a quarter-sized lump Zach can feel when he runs his fingers through his hair. Carson even removed two chunks of bone from the back of Zach's skull to give the brain additional room to swell. Six months later, the removed parts of Lederer's skull were replaced with a 21/2-inch titanium plate, which remains in the back of his head.

"His was an extremely unusual situation. Extraordinarily unusual," Carson said. "In fact, I've never had quite that same scenario in the 25 or 30 years that I've been practicing."

Zach's tumor has shrunk from approximately the size of a walnut to a mass now with the diameter of about a centimeter, the family says. And now, with five years of stagnancy, Carson has cleared Zach to play.

"I've been practicing neurosurgery for almost three decades now, and I've yet to see an athletic injury to a shunt," Carson said. "It's something you warn against and talk about, but I've never actually seen it. . . . Hopefully Zach won't be the first."

'A scary, scary time'

When Zach Lederer was in sixth grade, he began to experience serious headaches about every third week - debilitating and often accompanied by vomiting. Migraines or a virus, the family figured. So they saw the family pediatrician near their Ellicott City home, hoping that a week later he'd be fine.

Later that day, Christine and Zach were sent to Columbia for an MRI exam, and when they finished around 5 p.m. they expected to go home and find out the results the next day. Instead, the Lederers were directed back to the pediatrician's office; doctors said there was little time to waste.

"It's a sign things aren't good when they keep the doctor's office open for you," Christine Lederer said.

The tests showed that Zach had a brain tumor, which led to his first surgery on Dec. 14, 2004, a date John and Christine remember as if it were a birthday. During the 14-hour operation, Carson found that the tumor was wrapped in blood vessels, negating any possible removal or even a successful biopsy.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company