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Meet Our Survivors: Forrest Jackson

As 15-year-old Forrest Jackson lay in a hospital bed awaiting test results to identify a mass on his brain, his mother Wanda Jackson comforted the athlete in him.
“Forrest, we’re going to treat this like football,” Wanda said. “Whatever happens, we’re going to tackle it. We’re going to hit it as hard as we can, and we’re not going to worry about it.”

Wanda’s words steadied her and Forrest as they learned the teen’s diagnosis – germinoma, a brain tumor. The diagnosis was a swift, unexpected blow to the family, who’d attributed Forrest’s headaches to a sinus infection or migraine. “It was the furthest possibility from my mind,” remembers Reginald Davis, Forrest’s dad.

It was spring when Forrest began suffering the headaches – the time of year when allergies might cause some problems, like a sinus infection, Wanda thought. But the headaches continued for about three weeks. 

Forrest awoke with unbearable pain before dawn one morning, and Wanda, alarmed, took him to a local emergency room. Forrest’s X-ray results were normal, and he was diagnosed as having a migraine and prescribed medication. “But over the next few days, something still wasn’t quite right,” Wanda remembered. “I watch my son all the time, and I was watching his behavior. He was not his usual self, and he was somewhat quiet. I knew the pain was still there, even though he wasn’t complaining.”

When asked, Forrest admitted to Wanda that indeed the pain was still present. Wanda took her son to his primary care physician who ordered the CT scan that revealed the mass on Forrest’s brain. Further tests revealed the tumor, and the hospital – a local leading children’s hospital – referred Forrest to MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center for treatment. The tumor needed treatment with radiation therapy to prevent further complications or discomfort.

Treatment for brain tumors is complex and must be administered delicately, yet aggressively for effectiveness. With proton therapy technology, doctors were able to deliver the high doses of radiation needed to treat Forrest’s tumor, while protecting nearby normal brain structures to prevent new neurological deficits, hormonal deficiencies or intellectual impairment.

“Forrest was diagnosed with a rare – but luckily highly curable -- tumor that originated from his pineal gland,” explained Dr. Anita Mahajan, medical director of the Proton Therapy Center and director of Clinical Pediatric Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson. “Generally, radiation treatment has a very high cure rate for his specific tumor type, but because of the location of the tumor, we needed to deliver the treatment as precisely as possible. That’s why we recommended proton therapy.”

In addition to protecting healthy tissues in Forrest’s brain, the ability to precisely target proton therapy also helped to reduce side effects during the teen’s treatment, and “it will ultimately lessen potential late effects, such as secondary cancers, that may occur with traditional radiation treatment,” added Mahajan.

Forrest underwent five weeks of treatment at the proton therapy center. While the treatments went smoothly, the quarterback’s biggest discomfort was being away from the game he loves. Forrest’s absence from the gridiron was only temporary, however. Doctors released him to play in the fall following his treatment.

“At the Proton Therapy Center, our goal is to treat our patients so they can get back to doing what they love,” said Mahajan. “In Forrest’s case, we were thrilled to let him know that he could get back on the field and play football. We’ll still monitor him closely but we expect a very positive outcome as a result of his proton therapy treatment”
Reginald, who involved Forrest in football when he was 4, enjoys seeing his son back on the field, but he was more thankful for his son’s care.

“We would have tried anything to make him well,” Reginald said. “But we couldn’t have asked for better care. The staff was informative and answered all the questions we had and any question they thought we might have.”

The family also is thankful for Wanda’s watchful eye and vigilance. “Forrest is an athlete, so I’ve always been focused on his health,” Wand said. “I get every thing checked out. You have to pay attention to your children, and know when something is not right.”

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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