May 30 marks a year since 12 year old Phoebe Yancey’s initial hospital visit for what had seemed like a simple headache hours beforehand.
Two weeks later, the Yancey family faced words Jennifer, Phoebe’s mother and an Oregon High School choir teacher, said they never expected to hear: “malignant brain tumor.”
Specialists diagnosed Phoebe that day with a grade III anaplastic astrocytoma, a rare type of brain tumor, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders website. The tumors develop gradually or rapidly, the website states, and symptoms result from the star-shaped growth putting pressure on the brain.
After 33 treatments of radiation and 72 rounds of oral chemotherapy, March 9 being the last, the Rome Corners Intermediate student is on the road to recovery, her parents Mark and Jennifer told the Observer.
Amidst the treatments, the parents said there were moments of uncertainty, even though they try to live everyday as if it were a celebration. Mark recalled his daughter reassuring him “Dad, it’s okay. I’m going to beat this.”
According to Phoebe’s CaringBridge, a medical journaling website, Phoebe will need to have MRI post-treatment scans every three months until June 2020 — Jennifer said it will be a few years before doctors can pronounce that Phoebe is in full remission.
The 12-year-old’s first few scans since Sept. 4, 2018, have been clean, Jennifer said, but she is “in continuous recovery.” That has changed her parents’ perspective on life.
“The prospect of living day to day takes the worry out of what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Mark said.
‘Your daughter has cancer’
Mark said the family, which includes 13-year-old sister Peyton, had been on a fishing trip in northern Wisconsin. He recalled it being 90 degrees around that time.
Returning home to Oregon, Phoebe started complaining of what presented as a mere headache.
“(My parents) put me to bed with a warm compress,” Phoebe said.
Phoebe had fallen asleep for a while, but recalls waking up in the middle of the night, when her symptoms turned from minor to severe quickly. She said the entire right side of her body went numb — a rather disorienting experience.
“I got off the bed and I had double vision and (still) a headache,” Phoebe said. “My whole right side was pretty much — it felt like it was asleep.”
Jennifer said she thought her daughter was having a stroke, so the family got her to the hospital right away. Phoebe eventually ended up at American Family Children’s Hospital, where doctors raced to find out what was wrong with her.
Then on June 14, Jennifer remembers hearing the words, “Your daughter has cancer.”
Not only that, but a grade III level tumor — which Mark said is an indicator for how abnormal the tumor cells are and how “aggressively” they will grow.
Jennifer and Mark said those were some of the most surreal words they’ve ever heard. Generally a family that focuses on the positive, the parents said it was hard to at that moment.
Mark said Phoebe’s symptoms presented the way they had because the tumor cut off and blocked a ventricle, a cavity in the brain that drains spinal fluid, which normally protects the spinal cord from injury.
‘I’m alive today’
Phoebe’s type of tumor is more common in adults than children, according to the NORD website.
Mark said that meant she had to receive “adult” treatment for the cancer, since there is no pediatric version of the treatment. The grade being as high as it was, Phoebe said she feels lucky to be where she is today.
She said receiving treatment didn’t affect her school attendance — or even outlook — much. Jennifer said Phoebe’s teachers gave feedback that she maintained a positive attitude, seeming like she wasn’t sick at all at times.
What was most “devastating” for Phoebe was being told she had to refrain from playing soccer for awhile. But, she said she’s gradually getting back into the sport.
“I absolutely adore soccer,” Phoebe said.
Jennifer said the friends, family, the Oregon community — including the Oregon School District — have all been accommodating to Phoebe’s condition.
The parents and Phoebe are reminded of that support anytime they walk into her bedroom, which is lined with posters and art wishing her a safe and happy recovery.
Phoebe also received quite the slew of cards and care packages in the mail, to the point where she said it was “overwhelming.” Mark and Jennifer estimated they received the cards by the “hundreds.”
The RCI student said she’s not afraid of death anymore. She turned 12 on April 25 and doesn’t seem to be looking back. She’ll start classes at Oregon Middle School this autumn.
“I’m alive today and that’s pretty much all that matters,” Phoebe said.