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Young brain cancer patient treated with innovative therapy

SPONSORED — For most people, high school is all about Friday night football games, prom dresses, sleepovers and cramming for math tests. For Erin high school also involved MRIs, CT scans— and many visits to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center.

Now 19, Erin had a high school experience that included the unimaginable — brain cancer.

The diagnosis

In May 2015, Erin woke in the middle of the night knowing something was terribly wrong.

“The whole left side of my body was numb, and I had the worst headache ever,” Erin recalled. Later that day, she experienced blurry vision and asked her parents to take her to the emergency room. With the diagnosis of a possible migraine, she was sent home, only to experience worse symptoms just two days later.

“I felt numbness on the other side of my body,” she said. “I asked my mom to take me back to the ER. They did a CT scan and an MRI.”

After finding a mass in her brain, the local ER sent Erin to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where she had a biopsy and heard the words that would change her life:

She had cancer.

An avid fashion enthusiast with hopes of studying fashion marketing, Erin immediately assumed she would be losing her hair due to chemotherapy. But simply talking about treatment was overwhelming.

“At first I didn’t want treatment because I was scared and didn’t know what would happen, and I thought it would be easier to walk away,” she said. “But I had a brother who was 3 months old who passed away from a heart condition. So to say I wasn’t going to have treatment and leave my parents to possibly lose a second child, I just couldn’t do that.”

Erin found the strength to fight — not just for her parents, family and friends, but for herself, too.

“It came to a day that I thought, ‘I can’t do this for them; I have to do this for myself,'” she recalled. “That’s when I realized this was my fight, nobody else’s fight.”

The treatment

Once she was determined to beat her cancer, Erin turned to the doctors she knew and trusted at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center.

After considering all potential options for Erin, doctors at SCCA ultimately recommended proton radiation therapy.

“When they said I should have proton radiation, I just put my faith in the doctors and thought, ‘They know what they’re doing,'” she said.

Before her diagnosis, Erin knew nothing of proton radiation, a cutting-edge treatment that more precisely targets cancer cells, sparing the healthy tissue surrounding it. Erin’s tumor was in the center of her brain — making treatment very difficult and dangerous. At 17, Erin had too much to live for to risk her health on traditional cancer treatments.

“They did proton radiation because of my age and because they were worried about regular radiation affecting everything,” she said.

For solid tumors in young people, proton therapy is often the treatment of choice, because it reduces overall radiation exposure to growing and healthy tissue. This reduction in radiation is important in reducing risks of tumors later in life caused by treatment and to reduce side effects of radiation.

“We expect proton radiation to be as effective as standard x-ray radiation, but with fewer side effects, particularly long-term side effects.” says Dr. Ralph Ermoian, a pediatric radiation oncologist at SCCA Proton Therapy Center and Erin’s radiation oncologist.

SCCA’s Proton Therapy Center in Seattle is one of about 20 proton centers in the United States, and the only proton center in the Northwest.

Research has shown that proton therapy may significantly reduce the likelihood and/or amount of developmental abnormalities, growth delays, reductions in IQ, and other complications that often occur with standard X-ray radiation. Making it an ideal treatment for many tumors in pediatric patients.

“We choose proton radiation therapy for treating children with brain tumors because it works equally well against tumors, but with less radiation to healthy brain, pituitary gland and other tissues,” says Dr. Ermoian.

“This is expected to make a difference in the long term, which is what all of us are planning when we treat patients with curable brain tumors – whether they are children or adults.”

The future

Thanks to the advice of her doctors and her team at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center, Erin is now cancer-free. The proton radiation was able to kill the cancer without causing unnecessary harm to Erin’s healthy tissue. That means her worries have shifted to those more appropriate for her age group.

“I’ve had cancer, but I get it: I still have tests. I know what it’s like to miss a homework assignment,” she said.

With cancer behind her, Erin is thinking about her future — including graduating with her associate’s degree and perhaps going to Fashion Institute of Technology in New York or Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.

Fortunately, Erin’s plans no longer include endless medical visits. Her advice to everyone is to keep a good outlook on life; “Just enjoy it,” she said.

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