Promising therapy

Gage Hancock-Stevens and his mom are home from Texas.

They’ve been to the Houston Zoo. They’ve been to San Antonio. And 12-year-old Gage, a student at Evergreen Middle School, got to meet kids from all over the country.

They had some good times, but it was no vacation.

For the s

ix weeks they spent away from their Everett home, they stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston. The 50-bedroom home is a haven for children being treated for serious illnesses, and for their families.

When he was almost 3, Gage was diagnosed with an optic glioma brain tumor. The tumor, which affects optic nerves, stole the little boy’s sight. Gage, who has only slight vision in his left eye and none in his right, is legally blind.

Yet thanks to cutting-edge treatment he received since early May at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, doctors are optimistic about Gage’s future.

Dr. Mary Frances McAleer, a radiational oncologist at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center in Houston, treated the boy with the advanced radiation. So far, proton therapy is available in only a few places in the country.

“These tumors tend to fairly indolent. If we can stop the course of the tumor, we expect to have Gage around for a long time. I’m hopeful,” McAleer said Friday.

“He is such a wonder,” the doctor said. “His whole life, he’s been dealing with some adversity. But he would come in and sing a song. During treatment, he’d make the therapists smile.”

Gage’s mother, Shauna Hammer, retraced the long journey that brought them to Texas after the boy’s condition worsened last year.

As a toddler, Gage became increasingly clumsy. An eye exam found problems with his nerve endings, and the tumor was diagnosed. For years, he’s been treated at Seattle Children’s Hospital by Dr. Russ Geyer.

Because of the tumor’s position, surgery wasn’t an option. Hammer said Gage had several rounds of chemotherapy, and was helped by a research drug available about the time he started school. With Braille materials and the help of a teacher for the visually impaired, Gage has been in regular classes at Madison Elementary School and Evergreen.

Last year, Hammer noticed worrisome changes in Gage’s face. “The way his mouth was held, it looked like he’d had a stroke,” she said. He had trouble swallowing and pronouncing words, problems that tests showed were related to the tumor.

Worried about risks associated with traditional radiation, Hammer said doctors suggested the newer proton therapy. The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance announced in 2009 that a proton therapy center would be built in Seattle, but the new treatment is not yet available in the Northwest.

Dr. McAleer explained the difference between traditional photon radiation and the new proton therapy she said is responsible for Gage no longer showing the stroke-like symptoms.

“Some folks say it’s that magical beam,” McAleer said. It’s not magic, it’s science. Traditional radiation goes all the way through a patient to the other side. Protons, she said, are heavier particles. Energy from the accelerated beam is deposited at the target — the tumor — without going through and leaving an “exit dose.” That difference spares normal tissues, which in children is especially important, she said.

On Saturday, Gage was scheduled to fly home. For a time, the Texas trip was a family affair. Shauna and Brandon Hammer have 18-month-old twins, a boy named Jaxx and a girl, Parker. And Shauna has a 14-year-old daughter, Teylor Hancock-Stevens. Only Teylor didn’t travel to Texas, where Gage and his mom had been since May 2.

Treatments were five days a week, about an hour each. Sometimes the twins were there to cheer up families in the waiting room, Hammer said.

She is grateful for the Ronald McDonald House, which charged just $25 per night and was more than a roof over their heads. Gage made friends, and churches and other groups provided many meals, Hammer said.

“It’s fabulous,” she said. “With all the kids and siblings there, it was just an awesome environment.”

A self-taught musician, Gage found a piano at the Ronald McDonald House to play one of his favorite songs, “Lean On Me.” He also plays the ukelele and wants to play tuba in a school band.

The doctor said proton therapy isn’t magic, but Hammer sees what looks like a medical miracle.

“After his third week of proton, his speech was back to normal. He’s so much better,” she said. “Something positive is going on inside his head.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

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