Home » Bump on the Head Yields Cancer Diagnosis
BCM Minds Behind the Medicine – Vol. 1, No.2, Summer 2009
Barbara Canales never imagined that a minor playground injury suffered by her 6-year-old daughter would be one of the best things to ever happen to both of them.
That injury—a bump on the head during a game of hide-and-seek—led to a trip to the school nurse’s office and them to the nearby children’s hospital to check for a concussion. It was during those exams that doctors discovered that her daughter, Jackie Black, had a grade-3 brain tumor that if left undiscovered just a few months longer would almost certainly have taken her life.
That was in January of 2006. Today, Jackie is a thriving, clinically cancer-free fourth grader. Of course, the time between then and now has dramatically changed the lives of Canales, Jackie and their entire family.
It was, as Canales says, “a series of fortunate and unfortunate events” that led to the tumor’s discovery. No teacher saw Jackie bump her head, and there was no bleeding or even a noticeable bruise or bump. A teacher’s aide, however did see Jackie put her head down on her desk. Recognizing that as out of character, the aide sent Jackie to the school nurse, who suspected a concussion.
One phone call later, and Canales took Jackie to the hospital for an exam by her pediatrician, who also happens to be Barbara Canales’ sister-in law, Lynae Canales, M.D., ordered a CAT Scan for Jackie out of what can easily be described as an abundance of caution,” She said it would have been just as medically predent not to order a CAT Scan as to order it,” Barbara Canales recalls.
The CAT Scan and a follow-up MRI resulted in the discovery of the tumor. After receiving the diagnosis, Canales set out to find the best possible treatment center for Jackie, writing and sending brain scans to 10 of the top hospitals for brain cancer in the nation, including Texas Children’s Cancer Center , a partnership between Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital that is widely recognized as one of the top pediatric cancer centers in the nation.
Canales picked Texas Children’s Cancer Center out of these institutions largely because of the comfort and confidence she felt when dealing with its physicians. “What really convinced me was talking to Dr. Murali Chintagumpala (Clinical Director, Neuro-Oncology Program, Texas Children’s Cancer Center) and Dr. Bob Dauser (a Texas Children’s Cancer Center neurosurgeon). Dr. Dauser looked at the scans and was honest with me. He said he didn’t know what it was and that they couldn’t make any guarantees. But neither of these doctors told me theses things in a harsh way. I think it was their honesty and their compassion at the same time that gave me comfort. You’ve got to know you’re with the best minds, but you also have to feel comfortable with your doctors. Dr. Dauser and Dr. Murali gave me the right feeling.”
In time, the tests conducted at Texas Children’s Cancer Center revealed a grade-3 anaplastic astrocytoma. The five-year survival rate for individuals with such tumors is only 20 percent. “I asked the doctor if he ever had a patient with this type of tumor who survived,” Canales said. “I’m a lawyer and in law school they teach you to never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, but I had to know. I was praying that he was going to say one, and he did. I told him we were going to be number two and we are.”
To be counted as one of the few survivors of this form of cancer, Jackie first underwent two surgeries to remove the tumor. These surgeries were complicated by the tumor’s shape. As an astrocytoma, it had protrusions much like a child’s drawing of a star, making removal of the tumor over the course of several hours in the operating room. However, surgery cannot erase the risk posed by remaining cancer cells; radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed.
For Jackie, Caneles decided upon proton therapy, which targets tumors more effectively and causes less damage to surrounding tissue than many other options. These radiation treatments were followed by five rounds of experimental chemotherapy. Though physically taxing,” all of the treatments have kept Jackie free of any cancer during the past three years (counting from the date of diagnosis),” Canales said.
Canales’s efforts always put Jackie’s recovery first, and now this focus is being re-directed to support finding better treatments and cures for pediatric brain cancers. She has created and now runs the Ready or Not Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising money for pediatric brain cancer research with the goal of funding dramatic advances in brain cancer treatments. Canales has serious aspirations for the organization, as she hopes to do for brain cancer what other groups have done for breast cancer during the past few decades. “I want this to be more than one mother trying to find her voice in all this chaos,” she said.
With funding from the Ready of Not Foundation and matching gifts, Texas Children’s Cancer Center researchers, led by Dr. Susan Blaney, the Texas Children’s Cancer Center Brain Tumor Research Director, have improved the understanding of brain tumor biology by identifying new molecular targets for therapeutic drug design. They have also taken the lead in forming a Texas Neuro-Oncology Consortium to conduct translational research for pediatric brain tumors, moving research from the lab into the clinic and making it possible for children with brain tumors throughout the state to participate in their studies of new therapies.
“Of course I’m personally motivated because of what happened to my daughter. I’ll never be the same or rest the same because of my family’s experiences with cancer,” said Canales. “But I’ve met a lot of people along the way who has become meaningful to so many.”
Learn More at www.readyornotfoundation.org