A Family's Journey Through Childhood Cancer
In 2007, the Ragers were awakened at 3:00 a.m. when their 5-year-old son Matthew had a seizure. While concerned, they weren’t yet alarmed. They have an older son with epilepsy and were familiar with seizures.
“We actually didn’t think there was anything wrong,” Matthew’s mom Denise said. “Because of our older son, we understood seizures. So when Matthew had one, we just thought it was something that ran in our family.”
It wasn’t until four days later when an MRI at Loma Linda University in California revealed the mass on Matthew’s brain that his parents realized they were dealing with a different challenge.
“I was terrified,” Denise said. “Cancer scared me. Radiation scared me. Chemo scared me.”
Although frightened, fear did not paralyze Denise. She began to research the best treatment options for Matthew and connected with other families who’d been through similar experiences with their children.
“We got involved in an online support group for pediatric brain tumor parents,” Denise said. “They all encouraged us to go to a top hospital in the country. So we found MD Anderson. They’d just opened a proton center about a year before Matthew was treated.”
Following a surgery to remove the tumor, Matthew traveled with his family to Houston to receive his proton therapy treatments at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center.
“We wanted proton therapy for Matthew because we wanted to spare as much damage to his brain as we could,” Denise said. “I knew radiation could cause cognitive deficits, and I didn’t want him to have to face that in the future if we could avoid it.”
Proton therapy can be especially beneficial for children like Matthew, whose brains and bodies are still growing and developing, explained Anita Mahajan, M.D., his pediatric radiation oncologist and the director of Clinical Pediatric Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson. “With proton therapy, we are able to target a higher dose directly into the tumor – just as we did with Matthew – which allows us to minimize side effects during and after treatment. And because we know children are much more susceptible to the short- and long-term effects of radiation, anything we can do to reduce radiation exposure of normal brain and other healthy tissues is critical.”
With Denise and her husband convinced that proton therapy was right for their son, the family temporarily relocated from their home in California, to Houston for Matthew’s daily proton therapy treatments. The Ragers were appreciative of the quick and seamless admission and treatment process at the Proton Therapy Center, but it was Matthew’s rapport with staff members that helped comfort the family.
The ease of Matthew’s process was especially appreciated when the family sustained two more blows – Matthew’s grandmother died from cancer four months after his diagnosis, and his father, Eric, was diagnosed with testicular cancer four months after that.
Eric also was treated at MD Anderson for his cancer. Between Matthew’s and Eric’s treatment, the Ragers spent about seven months in Houston. The family visited local attractions, such as the Houston Zoo and attended an Astros baseball game and a Rocket’s basketball game during their stay.
Their stint as Houstonians subsequently enamored them with the city. That combined with their experience with MD Anderson led them to start a charity – Christ and Cancer. Through the charity, they purchased a condo – called Matthew’s Miracle House – to provide temporary housing for other families who travel to Houston for cancer treatment.
Matthew has been cancer-free since 2007. Now, about once a year or so, the Ragers travel to MD Anderson for his follow-up care. Matthew continues to do well. So well, in fact, he graduated from 8th grade in June 2015, with the hope of being an engineer when he grows up. He seems to have a knack for figuring things out – a trait he shares with his mom. When faced with Matthew’s cancer, Denise was determined to figure out a plan of action for her son’s care.
“I tell other parents, ‘You need to be in charge of your child’s medical situation,’” she said. “Don’t rely on doctors to tell you what to do. You need to understand what doctors are saying to you and what you’re getting into. Otherwise you’re going to look back and have regrets, and I didn’t want to have any regrets with my son.”