KA-POW! Against Cancer
Airick Amaya pretended to be Batman as he spun around, kicking the air. But, this time, he was rewarded with candy. It was Halloween, and like every other 4-year-old, he had one goal: to fill his trick-or-treating bucket to the top.
Still buzzing from the candy the next day, Airick was jumping on the couch singing when he fell and hit his head. “I thought he had just eaten too much candy,” says his mother, Vanessa Bonillas. But, when he began throwing up for what seemed like hours, Vanessa thought otherwise.
Airick’s parents took him to Phoenix Children’s Hospital emergency department. “I kept thinking he must really have hit his head hard for him to be this ill,” says Vanessa. Airick was admitted for hemorrhaging in his brain.
A subsequent MRI confirmed a golf ball-size tumor on the left side of Airick’s brain. Surgery was scheduled immediately. Vanessa confides, “Two weeks earlier, I had a gut-wrenching feeling that something was wrong. I thought about my family and myself, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I never thought this feeling would be about my son.”
Airick has always been a healthy, cheerful boy with no vision problems or other symptoms. His days are typically filled with play dates with his grandmother and dirt biking and four-wheeling with his older brother. “He’s an amazing and special boy who melts hearts with his infectious smile,” Vanessa says.
The surgeons at Phoenix Children’s Hospital were able to remove the visible tumor. Tumor specimens were sent for evaluation, revealing that Airick had a tumor rare for children called a glioblastoma multiforme. “Glioblastoma is the most aggressive form of brain cancer and one of the most difficult tumors to treat,” says Thomas B. Daniels, M.D., Airick’s radiation oncologist at Mayo Clinic.
“We received the best Christmas present in the world when Airick’s MRI revealed the tumor was gone,” says Vanessa. To spare the uninvolved brain and to irradiate the parts that extend past the tumor that you can’t see on an MRI, Airick’s physicians recommended proton beam therapy at Mayo Clinic.
Just in Time
“Every day, Airick teaches me something, such as to have more patience, to believe, to be positive, and have more hope, because there’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” Vanessa says. Although she says she’s at peace with the situation, she admits that if she had to leave her family behind to travel with Airick to another state for proton beam therapy, that wouldn’t be the case. “I’m so joyful that the Mayo Clinic program opened just in time for my son’s treatment,” she says.
The Proton Beam Therapy Program opened in Rochester, Minnesota, in May 2015 and in Phoenix in March 2016. One in 5 patients is a child. Different from conventional radiation, proton beam uses pencil beam scanning to deliver concentrated radiation to the tumor while minimizing the exposure to the surrounding healthy tissue.
Airick woke up after being sedated for his last treatment, kissed his stuffed dog and hugged his mom. After 30 treatments over 42 days, Airick, his family and his care team excitedly rang the celebratory bell.
“Airick hitting his head when he fell off the couch was a miracle from God,” Vanessa explains. “If he hadn’t hit his head, we would’ve never known he even had this tumor until it was too late.”
Making New Memories
A few months following treatment, the family celebrated at Walt Disney World for Airick’s Make-A-Wish Foundation of America Wish Trip, where he met his favorite Disney character, Olaf, from Frozen. “This distraction gave us the time to be a family and enjoy the moment. Everything else could wait until we got home,” says Vanessa. Over the summer, they spent time at the beach, where Airick was able to add seashells and rocks to his growing collection.
“Last year’s holidays were very, very rough for us,” says Vanessa. “We are looking forward to Airick returning to his normal life and not have him wake up each morning and ask, ‘Mama, which hospital are we going to today?’ I’d rather hear, ‘What cartoons can I watch, or what should I be for Halloween this year?’”
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