It's been more than nine months since Melanie Curtis has been back to her Cummings, Ga., home. She just happened to be visiting her daughter, Julie Estep, and her family in Birmingham, Ala., when she got some shocking news.
The 36-year-old mother of two had a brain tumor and needed immediate surgery to remove the pressure in her brain. That day marked the beginning of a journey they never imagined they would be taking -- mom and daughter fighting cancer hand-in-hand.
Julie seemed to be the picture of health. Even with two young boys, she found the time to eat healthy, visit the gym four to five times a week, and run marathons on the weekends. So when she began feeling migraine-like symptoms, she dismissed them as hormonal changes.
When the headaches persisted, she had an MRI, which revealed hydrocephalus, an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the cavities of the brain. Julie was in surgery the very next day to relieve the pressure in her brain. Following surgery, she received the diagnosis: a rare pineal brain tumor.
Julie and her mother were overwhelmed by the diagnosis but they leapt into action, researching experts. Then they found MD Anderson.
"We considered so many places -- all the major hospitals," recalls Melanie. "But it was MD Anderson's expertise, responsiveness and compassion that hooked us. We knew it was the place to help Julie overcome cancer and get back to her boys."
After Julie's recovery from surgery to remove the tumor in September 2010, the duo returned to Houston for Julie to begin proton therapy.
Radiation therapy for brain tumors and tumors at the skull base are complex and must be treated delicately, but aggressively. This sometimes involves irradiating not only the brain but also the spinal fluid. With proton therapy, cancer specialists can deliver the high doses of radiation needed to treat the tumor, while protecting nearby normal brain structures and vital organs such as the heart and lungs.
Beginning in November, Julie received treatment every weekday for 28 days.
"Every day I'd give her a project -- something to think about while she went through treatment. I'd tell her to think about Christmases when she was little, or to play in her head all the school plays she was in as a child," Melanie says.
One day, Melanie told Julie her project should be coming up with a name for the beam that was treating her.
"It took me a few days of treatments, but then it just dawned on me. Its name is BOH, as in Beam of Hope, because that's exactly what it was to me -- a beam of hope when I needed it most," Julie says.
A family that sticks together
When Julie started to lose her hair, her mom shaved her own head in solidarity. Since then, her 7-year-old son, husband, grandfather and father-in-law have all cut off their hair to show support.
"We're all in this together," Melanie says. "The bonus of not having much hair is that we all get ready in the morning in a fraction of the time; it's very liberating."
On Jan. 6, 2011, Julie rang the ceremonial MD Anderson gong to signify the end of her treatment. Since that triumphant action, the name "Beam of Hope" has caught on in the center, spreading Julie's hope to others going through treatment.
Now that they're back in Birmingham, Julie is getting back to normal life, with her mom living in a rental home nearby, helping her through the transition.
Melanie -- who still has a shaved head and a growing collection of cool hats, and resolves to keep it that way until her daughter's hair grows back -- reflects on the experience of helping an adult child cope with cancer.
"Your children are always your babies, no matter how old they are. I wish every day it was me and not her, but we surround each other in positivity. She's taking her life back now, and that's what it's all about."