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Meet Our Survivors: Emily Trail

In the Trails’ close-knit community in Bellevue, near Wichita Falls, Texas, basketball is the sport of choice among young athletes and spectators alike. So, it was no surprise when Emily Trail, 11, took interest in the sport. She looked forward to playing middle school basketball, training hard to sharpen her skills on the court. In fact, when she began having back pains, her mom, Stephanie, attributed the pain to the rigorous workouts.

“They’d work out pretty hard during gym, so I thought the achiness was due to that,” she said. “She also was growing so fast – almost six inches within two years.  I thought that it might also be growing pains she was having.”


The presumed “growing pains” persisted and grew more severe. Over-the-counter pain relievers and heating pads only provided temporary relief of a pain that eventually increased to excruciating. Emily couldn’t lie down or stand up. Her parents took her to her pediatrician for an X-ray and fortunately, a mobile clinic that provided MRI testing also was in town the same week. The tests revealed abnormalities, but Emily’s doctor arrived at no definite conclusions, except that she needed more advanced care immediately.

“He told us to take Emily’s films to the hospital and not to leave until they saw her,” Stephanie said.

The doctor’s insistence began a whirlwind of activity for the Trails. They traveled to the nearest children’s hospital where Emily underwent a battery of tests over the next few days before being diagnosed with a malignant ependymoma tumor in her spine.

Reality hitting them swiftly, the family had to absorb the news and prepare for the next steps. Emily needed surgery to remove the hot-dog-sized tumor at the base of her spine, and the surgery could possibly impact her ability to walk and the functions of her bladder, bowels and reproductive system.

The surgery was successful, and Emily awoke with feeling in her legs, relieving the family of one of their biggest concerns.  With the surgery behind them, the family then had to consider the radiation therapy that Emily would need to undergo following surgery.

“We were discussing an 11-year-old girl and her pelvis,” Stephanie said. “We want Emily to be able to have babies someday and not have damage to her other organs. When her oncologist told us about proton therapy at MD Anderson, we felt like that was the best and least invasive option for her.”

Emily traveled weekly to Houston where she underwent proton therapy treatments at MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center for six weeks.

“Proton therapy treatment can be ideal for many pediatric and central nervous system (CNS) tumors like the one at the base of Emily’s spine,” said Dr. David R. Grosshans, assistant professor of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson, who treats many of the center’s young patients and those with CNS tumors. “With proton therapy, we can target the radiation treatment directly to the tumor, so we are able to kill the cancerous cells while sparing surrounding critical areas. For Emily, it was important that we minimize radiation exposure to her ovaries and reproductive system as much as possible. Thankfully, proton therapy allowed us to do that to a great extent.”

Remembering the daily treatments, Stephanie said she was amazed at the efficiency.   From arrival and preparation to completion of treatment each day was only 20 minutes.

“It’s amazing how much they can do in such a short time,” she said. “Every step of the way, the process is so seamless, and they really do make it as pleasant as possible. Emily did so well with minimal reaction. The treatments seemed very gentle to her system.”

Shortly after the Christmas holidays, in January 2010, Emily completed her treatments and was on the rebound. She returned to school full force within weeks, and by the summer, Emily was back to her favorite pastimes – swimming, horseback riding and basketball. By the start of the new school year, Emily was more than ready to get back into her favorite game.

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Since treating our first patient in May 2006, the dedicated team at the Proton Therapy Center has helped countless patients overcome cancer and get back to living their lives. Click here to read our patient survivor stories.

© 2016 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center