As with all of her children, it was when Linda Ferrell saw the first image of her tiny daughter that it felt like she was really hers.
That initial connection came not through a sonogram but a photograph of her fourth child, Emma, who made her entrance into the family from China a few months later.
“The picture is what’s pretty amazing,” says Linda Ferrell. “It was love at first sight.”
Ten-month-old Emma joined a seven-year-old sister, also from China, plus two older brothers, Linda and husband David’s biological children, to complete the family. And life was good as Emma excelled in school, played softball, grew up.
Then in the spring of 2014 she got sick. There were headaches. She lost her voice. She lost 10 percent of her body weight. Her pediatrician kept insisting it was a virus.
“That went on almost a month,” Linda says.
When Emma was finally admitted to the hospital, an MRI showed a brain tumor encasing her entire left ventricle and making its way toward the right.
“You immediately think of the future—a future possibly without her,” Linda says. “But that is so brief. We’re a family that wants to find solutions, and we’re not going to waste our time crying. We were going to find out how to help her. She didn’t deserve anything less than that.”
Emma’s doctors didn’t mention proton therapy, but Linda did her research online and discovered it as a treatment option particularly ideal for pediatric patients. Unlike conventional radiation, protons deposit their energy directly at a tumor target, sparing much of the surrounding, healthy tissue—especially important for a growing, developing brain.
Originally planning to travel to Seattle, she called Provision Center for Proton Therapy and spoke with Dr. Matt Ladra about Emma’s tumor, which she describes as “relatively rare and very aggressive.”
“One of the biggest reasons we chose Provision is that Dr. Ladra really did his due diligence,” Ferrell says. “He spent a lot of time talking to experts who knew about Emma’s cancer.” He concluded she was a candidate for proton therapy.
First, there was surgery—which removed a “good portion” of the tumor. Six rounds of chemotherapy followed with a subsequent high-dose round in an attempt to further reduce the cancer cells remaining in her body. Then there was a stem cell transplant to boost recovery of her white blood cells.
After this physical onslaught, including months spent in and out of the hospital, treatment at Provision provided welcome relief. Emma responded well to seven weeks of proton therapy, experienced only minor fatigue and retained a good appetite most of time, gaining weight she had lost during chemo.
“It was pretty wonderful,” Linda says. “Emma’s been through quite a bit over the last year. With the treatment at Provision, it was pretty easy. I’m a huge advocate for proton therapy.”
The road to recovery is not over yet. Emma still struggles with her appetite. This year she goes back to school, a process Linda knows will be challenging as she battles the lingering effects of chemo and a year practically lost because of her illness. But she has endured amazingly so far.
“She’s stoic, she’s stubborn, and that’s really what got her through it,” Linda says. Unselfconscious over her surgery scar and hair loss and through the surgery, chemo and physical challenges “she never shed a tear,” she says.
The experience has brought the family closer, especially Emma and her older sister, Sarah, now 19 and a junior pre-med student. Since Emma got sick, Linda says, Sarah’s goal has become to specialize in pediatric cancer.
With a diagnosis like Emma’s, “your whole life changes,” says Linda. “It doesn’t end once your treated. We don’t know what the future’s going to bring.
“But we’re so thankful to have her.”
Click Here to Learn More About Proton Therapy