San Antonio resident Tony Castro was only seven years old when he started showing the first signs of a childhood brain tumor.
He began feeling nauseated in Nov. 2013, and even vomited occasionally. But because it was cold and flu season, the thought of cancer never entered his mother’s mind.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize it, and I took it really hard,” Lilliana Castro says. “I’m an ICU nurse, and I just beat myself up because I didn’t pick up on it. But he didn’t have any neurological symptoms.”
An ependymoma diagnosis
Lilliana took her son to a pediatrician, who diagnosed him with a viral infection. He was told to get rest and drink plenty of fluids. But he didn’t get better.
Over the next several months, Tony became tired frequently and he slept a lot more than usual. He was also much less physically active, which was strange for a boy normally so passionate about mixed martial arts. In May 2014, Tony began suffering from headaches, too, so his mother took him back to the doctor. A brain scan finally revealed the cause: a childhood brain tumor, or more specifically, stage III anaplastic ependymoma.
“I didn’t eat, and I didn’t sleep,” Lilliana says of the days following her son’s diagnosis. “I was crying all night and all day. I kept asking myself, ‘Why?’ I was put here to help people, to get them better, and here is my child with a prognosis that I know as a nurse is really, really bad. All I kept thinking about was death.”
The road to MD Anderson and healing
Tony had surgery to remove the 1.5 x 1.25-inch tumor at a local San Antonio hospital, but Lilliana decided to bring him to MD Anderson for his radiation treatments.
“Many people had told me about it, and I did a lot of research,” Lilliana says. “Our oncologist was highly recommended, so I decided to travel here.”
Once here, she met with Anita Mahajan, M.D., who prescribed a six-week course of proton therapy treatment for Tony at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center. Tony started his proton therapy just a few days after that initial June 2014 appointment and finished six weeks later.
“We had a wonderful experience and a wonderful result,” Lilliana says. “They made Tony feel so at home here that he never saw himself as a sick child. That was really important to me. He was going to the zoo and to museums. They provided so much stuff to keep Tony entertained that he honestly thought he was on vacation.”
Back to being a kid after a childhood brain tumor
Today, Tony is an active 10-year-old who shows no evidence of disease. The former honor roll student is back to making As and Bs in school, and he did extremely well on the state’s last annual assessment.
“He’s back to his normal self,” Lilliana says. “And he’s starting to play sports again.”
Tony is also starting to think about the future — and a possible career in cancer medicine.
“I want to be the head of cancer research,” he says, “because I want to find a cure.”