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;

Talk to us

More in Local News

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Motorcyclist identified in fatal crash near Lake Stevens

Anthony Palko, 33, died Monday night after colliding with a passenger car. The juveniles in the car were taken to the hospital.

Police: Marysville man shot sword-wielding roommate in self-defense

The roommates were arguing over eBay sales, according to police. Then one of them allegedly brandished a two-foot sword.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Everett boy, 12, identified as Davies Beach drowning victim

Malachi Bell was one of three swimmers in distress Sunday in Lake Stevens. He did not survive.

Port of Everett hosting annual open house after pandemic hiatus

Also, Rustic Cork Wine Bar plans to open a second shop at Fisherman’s Harbor — the latest addition to the port’s “wine walk.”

Tulalip council members and tribal members watch as Governor Jay Inslee signs bill HB 1571 into law at the Tulalip Resort on Thursday, March 31, 2022 in Tulalip, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Washington launches new Indigenous missing person alert system

It’s similar to an Amber Alert. Tulalip families of the missing have called the program a good first step.

Jenson Hankins address the court during his resentencing at the Snohomish County Courthouse on Thursday, June 30, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Man gets reduced sentence for 2003 Marysville ambush murder

“I’ve wanted to apologize for a long time,” said Jenson Hankins, who was 16 when he killed John Jasmer near Marysville.

The Tulalip Tribes have joined state and local leaders in calling on residents to stay home when not performing certain essential activities. Six Tulalip Tribes members had tested positive for COVID-19, including a tribal elder who died of the disease, according to the tribes. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Tulalips say US Supreme Court ruling undermines tribal sovereignty

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote: “Indian country is part of the State, not separate from the State.”

Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. (Olivia Vanni/The Herald)
With influx of patients, Everett hospital’s ER is overwhelmed

Providence set up a command center and diverted resources. A nurse said we’re watching “the collapse of health care.”

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Monroe in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Search begins in earnest for Monroe interim superintendent

Meanwhile, Superintendent Justin Blasko is still on leave, and school officials are keeping quiet about his future.

Most Read