When Shane Leonard was first diagnosed with cancer, he worried about what he stood to lose. It wasn’t his health that concerned the otherwise invincible 17-year-old; it was his summer internship.
Shane, who lives in Colorado Springs, was one of three students in the state selected for a paid internship at Schriever Air Force Base, where he’d be working with an engineer, conducting research for eight weeks. “Physics has interested me since tenth grade,” he said. “For a long time, my goal has been to get accepted into a top university and to become an engineer or scientist.”
Unfortunately, the two-centimeter lump on his neck changed everything for Shane and his family. Pediatrician after pediatrician dismissed it as a result of avid violin playing—a swollen lymph node that would eventually go away. It didn’t. Frustrated, the family finally visited an ENT.
On April 9, 2011, Shane was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a very rare cancer normally seen in 45-60-year-olds. His reaction was scientifically pragmatic; with a schedule already crowded with school, the Colorado youth symphony, National Honor Society, two business clubs, cross-country track and preparing for the SAT, cancer was simply another thing to manage.
His mother’s reaction was not-so pragmatic. “I couldn’t believe this was happening,” she said. “He’d always been healthy. And the waiting was horrible—wondering whether the cancer had spread.”
Surgery was immediately scheduled at a children’s hospital in Denver, where his salivary glands, along with 11 lymph nodes, were removed. After determining that the margins of his cancer weren’t clear, the surgeon recommended radiation as the next step.
From visiting the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Foundation’s website, Shane’s father had learned about proton therapy, and after speaking with their oncologist and numerous other specialists about it, the family decided proton therapy was a promising option. A health coach in Colorado Springs recommended MD Anderson, and on May 31, Shane, his parents and three younger brothers came to Houston.
“We had a lot of people recommending MD Anderson as the best place to go. We decided to come here even before we knew whether we were going with the proton or photon approach,” said Shane.
After running simulations Dr. Steven J. Frank, M.D., associate professor of radiation oncology and Shane’s physician, decided that proton therapy would, in fact, be the best approach for Shane. Treatment began on June 28.
“Shane’s particular cancer and its location within close proximity to the tongue is extremely rare. Our goal was to cure him of his disease while preserving his ability to taste and swallow normally following radiation treatment,” said Dr. Frank. “Proton therapy allowed us to create a specialized treatment plan that targeted Shane’s tumor with precision and accuracy.”
As both a patient and a budding scientist, Shane found the experience enriching.
“They found out about my interest in physics, so they introduced me to Richard Amos, the senior medical physicist at the Proton Center,” Shane said. “He showed me all around and gave me a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his work. We spent hours discussing physics, treatment and careers in science and engineering. His words had a strong influence on my goals for the future.”
Shane figures that physics was a coping mechanism for his treatment experience. During this time, he also managed to tour Rice University and achieve near-perfect scores on both the SAT and ACT exams. Shane completed his treatments on August 12, three days before school started back in Colorado Springs.
Shane is now back in school and finishing up his college applications. The now 18-year-old is preparing for his future – one that looks very bright.
In retrospect, Shane no longer thinks about what he lost to cancer. On the contrary, he considers what he’s gained. “My experience here has truly been one of the high points of my life. I’m thankful because it’s given me a better view of reality. If you really want to experience life, it’s not about comfort and convenience. It’s about suffering, sometimes. You persevere and you learn.”