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Nicolle Mattingly - Brain Cancer

Nicolle Mattingly - Brain Cancer

At the tender age of 9, Nicolle Mattingly was a girl with headaches.

Doctors ran a series of tests and finally an MRI of her brain to find the culprit: a benign brain tumor. Because the tumor was blocking fluid to her brain, doctors had to do surgery right away. Then Nicolle rounded out her surgery with radiation for two months. After that, she went on for the next 15 years with regular check-ups and MRI scans.  

Nicolle grew up dancing and teaching ballet in Gig Harbor, WA and got a degree in biology from the University of Washington. It was actually her childhood cancer experience that sparked Nicolle’s love of science. She went on to teach middle school science in Reno, NV.

But in the spring of 2014, Nicolle was getting vertigo when walking around the classroom teaching. “I couldn’t even stand in front of my classroom for very long,” Nicolle recalled. Doctors were reluctant to do an MRI, but given her history, Nicolle pushed for it. Good thing, because they discovered a 5-cm-large tumor in a different part of her brain. She went through surgery, and based on her new doctor’s diagnosis, she didn’t need follow up radiation.

In January of 2016, Nicolle’s routine MRI revealed a new brain tumor— a very rare form of brain cancer called pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma or PXA. Her neurosurgeon in Tacoma recommended she see Dr. Lia Halasz at SCCA Proton Therapy Center.

As they reviewed her medical history, the doctors determined this tumor was likely a secondary effect from the radiation Nicolle had when she was a child.

“That was the most devastating part. The treatment I received a child, the treatment that was supposed to cure me, made me sick again,” Nicolle said. “However, I had more options this time around. Proton therapy was a great alternative for me because it’s so targeted and did not expose my healthy tissue.”

Nicolle embarked on 30 sessions of proton therapy, for which she commuted from Puyallup. However, timing was proving tricky. Nicolle was getting married in nine weeks to sweetheart David! And proton therapy would take six weeks! Dr. Halasz and the staff at the center were able to get Nicolle’s treatment started right away so treatment would not interfere with her upcoming wedding.

“When I had radiation as a child, it was like going to the doctor’s office—it was very cold,” Nicolle said. “I was 9 years old and had a very different perspective. But everyone at the proton therapy center, from the front desk staff to my the nurses and doctors, always made me feel cared for. Everyone there was much warmer and more compassionate, and they wanted to get to know you on a personal level.”

With little to no side effects, Nicolle was able to continue her full-time job as a school district administrator. And after six weeks of commutes from Puyallup to Seattle, graduation day finally arrived -- just shy of her wedding. On June 20, Nicolle was able to celebrate overcoming her brain cancer battle. And on July 9, Nicolle was able to celebrate her wedding day. 

“The risk is so much less with proton therapy, because you’re not damaging all that extra tissue,” Nicolle said. “It’s so targeted, and when you’re looking at the risks, that’s a huge part not to overlook. You think about what’s going to help you right now, but you need to think about how that treatment could impact you in the future.”

Today, Nicolle and her husband David are looking forward to the future and enjoying peace of mind every day of their lives.