When a 4-year-old Dylan Harrell began experiencingheadaches, his family never would have guesseda brain tumor was the cause
But a scan at a hospital in their hometown of Dallas revealed a golfball-size tumor lodged in a difficult-to-reach part of Dylan’s brain. In 2008, he was diagnosed with pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma (PXA) — a rare brain tumor.
“Other than headaches, Dylan had no symptoms,” says his mom, Jennifer Harrell. “The diagnosis brought quite a shock to our family, but it spurred us to act quickly.”
Doctors in Dallas surgically removed most of the tumor, but three months later a scan revealed it was growing back. Dylan transferred to the Children’s Cancer Hospital at MD Anderson and enrolled in the Pediatric Brain Tumor Program — a collaborative effort that brings together experts from MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital to deliver treatments tailored to children.
Approximately 3,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed with brain tumors in the United States each year. These tumors can differ greatly from those in adults in cell type, presentation and how they respond to treatment. Therefore, it’s important that physicians who specialize in pediatric brain tumors treat them.
“Health care providers at both hospitals, along with affiliated physicians at UTHealth Medical School in Houston, work together to give pediatric brain tumor patients a second chance at life,” explains Soumen Khatua, M.D., associate professor of Pediatrics and director of the program. “An array of neurospecialists treat the most complicated brain and spinal tumors in very delicate areas of the body.” Every case is different, Khatua says.
Ashley Cipolla, 21, enrolled when headaches, blurred vision, sensitivity to bright lights and noises revealed she had a fast-growing brain tumor called a medulloblastoma.
“One day my father found me passed out on the restroom floor,” Ashley says, recalling the events that led to her emergency room visit and surgery at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center. Her surgeon, Ashwin Viswanathan, M.D., clinical assistant professor of Neurosurgery, has a shared appointment at MD Anderson.
Patients have access to a number of treatment options at MD Anderson, including clinical trials, the Proton Therapy Center and the BrainSUITE — an operating room that includes a magnetic resonance imaging machine, which allows neurosurgeons to have a real-time view of their patients’ tumors during surgery.
Four years after chemotherapy and proton therapy — a highly targeted type of radiation that zaps tumors without damaging surrounding tissue — Cipolla is back in school, working and participating in her favorite activities: dancing, running and swimming.
Dylan was found to have a gene mutation that qualified him for an MD Anderson clinical trial in which he’s receiving multi-targeted therapy. On the cusp of turning 13, he plays soccer, is on his school’s swim team and is doing well in his classes.
“He’s very active, and shows no outward signs of having a tumor,” says his mom.