CEDAR PARK - It's hard to tell at first glance that Ana Kate Partridge, a soon-to-be 2nd grader at Deer Creek Elementary, has fought off brain cancer for four years. She loves playing with her dolls, going swimming, talking about school and friends and wearing sundresses like many 7-year-old girls. But Ana Kate has withstood brain surgery to remove a tumor twice, various rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and countless doctor visits beginning when she was just a baby.
"In November 2004, we went in for her six-month checkup." Ana Kate's mother, Shawn, recalled. "I remember sitting in there and the nurse kept measuring the circumference of her head. It was measuring a little off the chart. The pediatrician said to just continue watching her soft spot. If anything, he said, it's a blockage of spinal fluid and if it bulges off, then operation is necessary."
Despite doctors telling her to wait until Ana Kate's nine month checkup, Shawn took her youngest daughter back to the doctor about four or five days following her six-month checkup. Ana Kate had become cranky, was suffering from colic and would throw tantrums when her parents tried strapping her in her car seat. The day Shawn took Ana Kate back to the doctor, the circumference of her head had grown by half a centimeter in less than a week. Shawn immediately asked that a CAT scan be performed.
The next day, Shawn and her husband, Ron, were called in to the doctor's office where they received the devastating news that their little girl had a brain tumor in the back of her brain and that there was a 95-percent chance it was cancerous. An MRI revealed medulloblastoma - a rare brain tumor. Ana Kate was immediately taken in for surgery and began receiving chemotherapy in Austin when she was only seven months old. Tests indicated she was clear of cancer.
Ana Kate received her treatment, MRIs and chemotherapy in Austin [at Dell Children's Medical Center] and would check in with MD Anderson in Houston every three-to-four months. She finished her chemotherapy in July 2005 when she was one-and-a-half years old.
But shortly after Ana Kate's second birthday, an MRI showed tiny tumor re-growth. After heavy research by Ron on medulloblastoma, the Partridge family learned of proton radiation therapy being offered at MD Anderson's then newly-opened proton therapy center. Proton therapy is an advanced type of radiation treatment that uses a beam of protons to deliver radiation directly to the tumor to destroy cancer cells while limiting radiation exposure to healthy tissues which is vital in children who are still growing and developing. The Partridges took a leap of faith and Ana Kate became the center's first pediatric patient in 2006.
Six tumors were found in Ana Kate's spine just two weeks after she was found to be clear. Shawn was thrilled that Ana Kate would be receiving breakthrough treatment. She and Ana Kate spent nine weeks in Houston where the little girl would receive radiation Monday through Thursday. In the meantime, Ron and their two older daughters, Lauren and Alexis, were showered with support from family, friends, the neighborhood, Ron's workplace and Deer Creek Elementary in Cedar Park.
"They kept them fed and took them out to activities," said Shawn of all those who helped, in particular Deer Creek and Golfsmith.
While the radiation didn't make Ana Kate sick, Shawn said the chemotherapy was "very, very hard." She had to have home health care to help her look after Ana Kate and was not able to take her out in public much during the first round of radiation. During the second round of radiation, Ana Kate didn't get sick and was able to go out in public a few times during which she would go to the zoo or play with friends.
The time away from her mother was very hard on Alexis who had to go to counseling to help her through the family's ordeal. Lauren moved forward by rallying up her school mates and writing get well wishes to her little sister and would keep her entertained and joyful when she got to see Ana Kate. Ron would go to Houston every other week during that time. The girls were looked after by their grandmother.
"We're going on four year of remission on this very spreadable cancer," said Shawn. "And she's doing very well. She's a little bit behind in reading. It's a slow process. She also has short term memory problems." Ana Kate has also improved greatly in her balancing, her mother reported.
Doctors suggest the improvement is directly linked to proton therapy.
"Proton therapy is an innovative and important treatment option for people with cancer, especially for children and young adults, because it limits the dose to normal tissues. This can result in fewer side effects during treatment but especially later on in life, including learning difficulties and potential secondary cancers," said MD Anderson's Dr. David Grosshans.
"Her last check up was in February and her test came back that her thyroid was off due to radiation beams. She's on thyroid medicine to help her growth abilities," Shawn shared. "We go back in one week to get an MRI of the brain and spine. We'll get an X-ray to see how her hands are growing."
Shawn said Ana Kate will be receiving hormone growth testing since doctors predict Ana Kate will only grow to be 4-foot-3-inches at most. With hormone growth, Ana Kate could grow to 5 feet. The news has been difficult on Ana Kate's parents who are both tall, said Shawn.
The Partridges built a pool outside their home so that Ana Kate could continue her love of swimming without being subjected to germs and potential illnesses at public pools.
Ana Kate said she is excited to start second grade later this month and is actively involved in gymnastics classes at AcroTex as well.
"When I was in gymnastics, there was a really cool trick and I got to ring the bell for completing an activity," Ana Kate said. "I like the trampoline and cool tricks. I like playing with my baby dolls and with my friends. I'm excited about school. I like math."
Ana Kate has a classmate who also suffers from medulloblastoma and knows of another local child who lost his battle to the same disease. Shawn is surprised of the coincidence considering the cancer is rare. Looking back, Shawn said the only cancer symptom Ana Kate showed were her "big eyes," which Shawn did not know was a symptom until after her daughter was diagnosed.
"Abnormal pupils are sometimes a sign of increased pressure around the brain due to the tumor "pushing" on the normal brain. With that said, every child presents differently with cancer, and it's difficult to speculate as to why Ana Kate didn't show any other symptoms," explained Dr. Grosshans, adding that the cancer can sometimes be genetic, but in most cases, the reason is unknown.
The increased circumference on Ana Kate's head when she was a baby was due to the tumor in her brain.
"This increased pressure can cause a variety of problems. Likewise, tumors that spread to the spine can push on the spinal cord or nerves causing pain and weakness. Again, because the brain controls the rest of the body, a brain tumor in a particular location can lead to problems elsewhere," shared Dr. Grosshans.
Shawn is grateful Ana Kate's cancer was caught and tackled when it was because she knows that time is key when it comes to cancer. She is also grateful the family had the means to cover Ana Kate's medical expenses. She said while it's been the greatest challenge, it's also brought the family together.
Shawn is now extremely careful about what her girls are exposed to. Lauren said their mother doesn't allow them to drink out of public water fountains because she worries about germs.
"Remember that childhood cancer is still an uncommon disease. Not every ache and pain means cancer. However, if problems persist, parents should continue to express concerns to their child's doctor so that they can work together to identify the cause of any issues," said Dr. Grosshans.