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BrookLynn O'Hara - Childhood Cancer

BrookLynn O'Hara - Childhood Cancer

When BrookLynn O’Hara grows up, she wants to be a nurse and work at a children’s hospital. And she’ll be a great one, because she’s been on the other side, and knows all about great nurses. 

On the outside, BrookLynn seems like your usual 14-year-old. She loves playing with her dog, Jaxon, a Pomeranian/Papillon mix. She’s active in gymnastics and basketball at her high school in Graham, Washington. She loves hanging with her friends… But scratch a bit beneath the surface and you meet a wise and deep person. “My mom and brother have been very patient and helpful and made me laugh through this; they don’t know how much they’ve helped me through. And because my mom is an OR tech, it’s even harder for her, because she knows more about what I’m going through.”

What BrookLynn has is Rhabdoid Meningioma, an extremely rare brain cancer. And her story, while scary, is also full of hope and happiness. It started in December of 2014. BrookLynn started having debilitating headaches almost every day, to the point where her mom would have to come pick her up from school. On December 6, BrookLynn passed out in her room. A few hours later, after a trip to the pediatric department at Good Samaritan Hospital, she found herself in a helicopter, on her way to Harborview for emergency surgery.

First a shunt was put in. Then she had surgery to remove some of the tumor. Then she had more surgeries, eight in total. The type of brain tumor she has is difficult to remove, and it can grow back. No chemotherapies have been identified as clinically useful. This left radiation therapy. Her UW oncologist recommended proton therapy, because targeted radiation like proton therapy hits less healthy tissue and is the standard of care for young people.

This August, BrookLynn started her course of proton therapy. For six weeks, five days a week, she and her mother drove all the way from Graham, which is 50 miles one way and takes more an hour, even with no traffic. BrookLynn remembers, “My mom didn’t want to miss any work, so she would go to work, then leave to drive me to my appointment, drive back home, and then go back to work, not coming home until 9 or 10 at night.”

While the logistics were difficult, the actual treatments were not. “It doesn’t hurt, and the people are really nice, they make you laugh, ask about your day, and they really care—they don’t just act like it. I wish I didn’t have to be there, but since I had to be there, at least it was nice.”

At first, she was a little freaked by the giant rotating machine that generates the proton beam, and the radiation mask that held her head in place, but she soon grew used to it. “The radiation mask is green with holes in it, holding your head still so that the radiation beam goes only where it’s supposed to.” And because proton radiation stops at the tumor site, it reduces the damage to otherwise healthy brain tissue beyond the tumor.

BrookLynn is recovering from the treatments and is working to keep her spirits high while she waits for the results of recent scans. “I’ve had a lot of anxiety, but I suggest hanging with fun people and friends to motivate and comfort you, and hugging your dog a lot. And focus on why you’re getting the treatments: to get better.”

While she waits, BrookLynn is also making big plans for after high school. “I’m in Junior ROTC, and will join the military to get nursing training. And then I’ll go work at Seattle Children’s Hospital and help kids feel better.”