A routine six-month check-up for her baby spurred mom Shawn Partridge into action. She’d taken Ana-Kate to her pediatrician for a visit during which the nurse measured the baby’s head. Curiously, the nurse measured twice before she returned with the doctor who measured Ana-Kate’s head yet again.
“I thought, ‘what’s going on, what’s happening?’” Shawn said. “The doctor said Ana-Kate’s head was a little larger than it should be, but that it wasn’t a concern. He just wanted me to watch the soft spot at the top of her head to make certain I didn’t notice any bulging, and I was supposed to bring her back at 9 months.”
The doctor’s words did little to reassure Shawn. The interest in Ana-Kate’s head measurement during the doctor’s visit motivated Shawn to research issues that might cause enlargement of the head, and she began to realize some of the behaviors she’d observed in her baby might actually be symptoms of a more serious problem.“She was not lifting her head or crawling,” Shawn said. “And she’d scream every time I tried to put her down.”
Shortly after the appointment, Ana-Kate became ill with a cold and Shawn returned with her to the pediatrician. The doctor took another head measurement during the sick visit, which revealed that it had grown half a centimeter since the previous visit. Alarmed, Shawn demanded an MRI for Ana Kate. The test confirmed the family’s worst fears – Ana-Kate was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a tumor in her brain.
The baby endured chemotherapy in an Austin, Texas, hospital, and after her regimen, tests indicated she was clear of cancer. However, shortly after Ana-Kate’s second birthday, an MRI showed tiny tumor re-growth. Ana-Kate’s oncologist recommended radiation therapy. The family researched their options and then learned of proton radiation therapy being offered at MD Anderson’s newly opened proton therapy center.
“My husband researched proton therapy, and we decided it was the best option for Ana-Kate because it targeted the area where the tumor was located and would do less damage to the brain,” Shawn said. “She was only 2 years old, and her brain was still growing. So that was very important to us. We wanted the least amount of radiation possible for our little angel.”
The family traveled to MD Anderson, prepared for Ana-Kate to be the center’s first pediatric patient. Shawn moved with Ana-Kate to Houston for six weeks of treatment while the rest of the family remained in Austin. Because Ana- Kate had such minor side effects to the treatments – primarily fatigue – the two were able to make the most of their time in Houston, visiting popular area attractions such as Galveston’s beach, the Kemah Boardwalk, the Houston Zoo and visiting with friends.
After Ana-Kate’s eight-week treatment at the proton therapy center, she returned home for chemotherapy. Today, Ana-Kate has been cancer-free for four years. The first-grader enjoys arts and crafts and playing with her dolls. She also takes gymnastics classes to help with some balance issues that remain. Mom Shawn describes Ana-Kate as a petite yet spunky 6-year-old with a “big personality.”
Although the family’s journey seems distant, Shawn still remembers the relationships they built with the care team at MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center.
“During treatment, it was so nice to have a doctor who I could ask questions and get a response back quickly,” she remembers. “The time away from the rest of our family was the hardest. I don’t know if I would have made it without the center’s physicians and staff.”