Pediatric rhabdomyosarcoma caregiver supports son through treatment
The summer after six-year-old Christian completed kindergarten, he started complaining that his ear hurt. His mom, Marisa Garcia, thought it was an ear infection from being in the water during a recent beach trip. At first, she didn’t see anything, but then she noticed a lump behind his left ear.
When his face began to swell and the bump grew larger, his parents took him to the emergency room. On June 14, 2021, doctors found a fast-growing tumor.
Trip to ER reveals rhabdomyosarcoma
After several more scans, doctors determined the cancer had spread throughout his body. Christian was diagnosed with stage IV rhabdomyosarcoma.
“I never would have imagined we would find out that Christian had cancer,” says Marisa.
The family brought Christian to MD Anderson to be treated by rhabdomyosarcoma expert Dr. Douglas Harrison.
On June 21, two days after Christian’s first appointment, he started chemotherapy.
“It was heavy and emotional. While trying to absorb all the information given to us, we were trying our best to comfort and console our child," says Marisa. “But from the beginning, everyone has treated us with care and patience.”
Because of the physical properties of proton beams, proton therapy is ideal for pediatric cancer patients with tumors located near growing tissues, especially in the brain, spine, eyes, ears or mouth.
Christian’s parents remember the first month of treatment being the hardest for their family. They had to learn to navigate hospital life while taking care of their other children. Once they developed a routine, Christian started to understand what he needed to do. That’s when Marisa remembers things beginning to lighten up.
During treatment, Christian maintained good energy, an appetite and remained in high spirits. To help manage side effects, his parents kept him comfortable with his prescribed medications. “During chemotherapy, Christian experienced moments of nausea, but it was not a daily thing,” says Marisa. “He enjoys staying active and still runs and plays often.”
With the proton beam’s target area being near his throat and behind his ear, Christian had side effects such as patchy hair loss, skin irritation and change in taste. But these symptoms were managed by his care team, and they improved over a short recovery time after treatment.
Follow-up scans show positive response
After eight weeks of chemotherapy, Christian had his first follow-up scans in September.
They showed that the cancer that had spread to his arms, legs, pelvis, bone marrow and spine was gone, along with the baseball-sized tumor. “It was better than anything we could have hoped for,” says Harrison.
Still, Christian continued proton therapy and chemotherapy to eliminate any microscopic cancerous cell that might be left.
Undergoing proton therapy treatment without sedation
Anesthesia is usually given to young children to help them remain still during radiation therapy. But four days into treatment, Christian was ready to try undergoing his proton treatment without anesthesia.
With the help of the child life team at the Proton Therapy Center, Christian underwent the last six weeks of treatments without sedation. “I would meditate with him and make him feel very calm before treatment,” Marisa says. “That really helped him a lot.”
On Nov. 15, 2021, with his radiation therapists and nurses cheering him on, Christian rang the gong to mark the end of his proton therapy treatments. “His skin looks great, no weight loss, few mouth sores, and he walked out of his last treatment like a little boss,” says Marisa.
Standing strong through childhood cancer treatment
“Remain grateful and recognize blessings where you can. Everything we've worried about, everything we've braced ourselves for, God covers it,” says Marisa. “What helped us was talking through the process with Christian. When you don’t keep a child in the dark about their treatment, they know what to expect and can mentally prepare. This made things seem a lot less scary for him. “