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This dentist made a life-saving discovery during a 5-year-old's routine cleaning

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By MOLLY SHEN, KOMO

EVERETT, Wash. (CIRCA via KOMO) — Five-year-old Hunter Jones is getting ready for a dentist appointment.

First, she needs to put the final touches on a card, with a heartfelt message for her dentist.

"I writed, 'I love you,'" Hunter said.

Even Hunter's parents are feeling anxious. Her dad, Jay Jones, said, "It's gonna be very emotional."

Mom Kara agreed, saying, "It's going to be exciting."

The appointment is for a routine cleaning. But the last time Hunter was at Stellar Kids Dentistry 18 months ago, Dr. Harlyn Susarla discovered a tumor in Hunter's jaw.

Susarla met the family in lobby with hugs and hellos.

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

The discovery began with several loose teeth, which is unusual for a 4-year-old. Susarla asked for a panoramic X-ray, which revealed the growing tumor.

"I was freaked out," Kara remembered. "I was at the dentist. You don't ... tumor? No."

The family went to Seattle Children's Hospital, where a surgeon took a biopsy, confirming cancer. It was neuroblastoma.

"This is such an aggressive disease process, early recognition and diagnosis is the key, I think, for treatment," said Dr. Seenu Susarla, a Seattle Children's Craniofacial Surgeon. He credits the dentist with the early catch — a dentist who also happens to be his wife.

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

The Susarlas were part of a large care team to treat Hunter over the next year and a half.

"We found out she had a tumor in her abdomen," Jay said. "And it spread to her hip as well."

Over the next year, Hunter spent 140 days at Seattle Children's.

"We had two tumor removals. We've had five rounds of chemo, two stem cell transplants," Kara listed. "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 they finished a few weeks ago.

Completing treatment meant she was finally able to return to the place it all started for that thank you.

"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, the treatment, that she needed," Dr. Harlyn Susarla said. "Honestly, I probably think about her every day."

Today, Hunter is cancer-free. Her aggressive treatment caused hearing loss and other health issues, and she could relapse. But right now, she is simply a little girl going to the dentist. Something so ordinary that is — for this family — extraordinary.

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