Then, he was diagnosed with the disease the summer before his senior year.
He noticed a lump on his neck’s left side two years before being diagnosed. At first, he thought it was from excessive violin playing. Still, his parents took him to five doctors before the rare diagnosis was finally confirmed: adenoid cystic carcinoma of the salivary gland.
It’s so rare, in fact, that MD Anderson had only seen six comparable cases in the past 40 years.
Successful surgery at the children’s hospital near Leonard’s hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo., revealed that the cancer had wrapped itself around the gland’s edge. Follow-up radiation was recommended. Yet, given the tumor’s precarious location, there were concerns about preserving Leonard’s ability to speak, swallow and taste.
The right treatment
After careful research, Leonard and his family opted for proton therapy — an advanced type of radiation that uses a proton beam to deliver therapy directly to the tumor, destroying cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue. Under the care of Steven Frank, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology, Leonard spent the summer at MD Anderson. He received 33 rounds of treatment.
“One of the ways I’d cope with the treatment was to read books about physics or watch a series of quantum mechanics lectures I found online,” Leonard says.
With this insatiable thirst for knowledge, he also became fascinated with the massive 200-ton gantry rotating around him.
Leonard’s summer in Houston meant turning down a prestigious engineering internship. When his treatment team learned of this disappointment, they arranged for him to spend time with the center’s senior medical physicist, learning about proton’s precision firsthand. This furthered his desire to pursue a scientific career.
“When I think about my experience, it isn’t about cancer or my side effects. It’s about the people I’ve met and the chance I’ve been given to learn from adversity,” Leonard says. “These opportunities wouldn’t be something I’d normally experience. Cancer has helped me re-establish my priorities and be more content in everything I do.”