Mattie Powell cancer free for now 2009.04.22

Written by David Green.


Things are good in the Powell household now.

Mattie and her parents are back from treatment at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Mattie recently celebrated her fourth birthday and she’s growing a good head of hair after so many months of baldness. She participated in her tap dance recital Sunday and she’s having a great time on the playground equipment donated by the Make a Wish Foundation.

And best of all: She’s been declared cancer free.mattie.swing.jpg

That’s not to say that the situation might change. As of now, the brain cancer that doctors have fought with radiation, chemotherapy and a clinical trial using antibodies has disappeared.

Duane and Sara Powell are well aware of the recurrence rate for their daughter’s cancer, and they’ve painfully learned of the deaths of other children with the same affliction—a medulloblastoma tumor.

In Mattie’s case, however, they have extra reason for optimism.

Other children didn’t receive the new treatment as a first line of defense. They headed for Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center  as a last chance. They already had conventional treatment, but the cancer returned and not all of those children are alive today.

In Mattie’s case, she started with conventional treatment at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., but soon signed up for the trial in New York City.

Treatment there started with rounds of radiation that were followed with the introduction of antibodies through a small reservoir in the top of her head.

In February, after the family had returned to their home near Morenci, the results came in. An MRI showed no tumor. The cerebrospinal fluid also tested clear of cancer cells.

That’s the best news the Powells could have hoped for, but the constant concern about a return appearance lingers. The wait between tests is a bit unnerving.mattie.plaque.jpg

“The next couple of years are critical,” Duane said. “We’re now waiting three months between tests. A couple of kids were two years out before there was a recurrence.”

The Powells will return to St. Jude May 5 for a battery of exams—their first visit since last October.

“We’re excited to go back to Memphis,” Duane said. “We have many friends that we left there.”

They also intend to visit a couple of youngsters who, like Mattie, are now back at home recovering.

If results are good, doctors will probably remove the central line catheter implanted in Mattie’s chest. The device allows medication to be administered and blood withdrawn without the poke of a needle.

The Ommaya reservoir in her scalp will stay—better to leave it in place and ignore it than take it back out.

Long journey

Looking back on the past year and a half, Duane knows how fortunate his daughter is to be running around the house playing.

Doctors were blunt when discussing the initial brain surgery, acknowledging that death could occur on the operating table, but Mattie made it through that ordeal with practically no problems.

When the Powells signed on with the experimental treatment at Sloan-Kettering, they knew that more radiation was ahead before the treatment began.

“That was a tough decision for a parent,” Duane said. “You want to cure your child, but you want her to have a quality life.”

Full dose radiation at that age can lead to learning disabilities, but doctors were to use a lesser strength with a slim chance of any long-term effects.

“We went there knowing it was the only place in the world where they were doing this clinical trial,” Duane said. “Between the radiation and the new treatment they were able to take care of it.”

Watching Mattie tear around the house playing with her 13-year-old sister, Hannah, you would never know what she recently went through.

“The way she’s acting now is the way she acted most of the time during her treatment,” said her father. “She was always out playing and walking. You seldom found her in her room. That’s what helped us get through it. Her morale was great.”

That and the support from a wide network of family and friends.

“The support we’ve had is just overwhelming,” Duane said. “We just can’t say enough about what people have done for us.”

It’s a chilly, windy day, but Mattie is heading outside to her new playground before taking a drive around the yard in her birthday gift—a child-size electric John Deere Gator.

It’s difficult to remember what normal is, but life at the Powell home appears to moving in that direction.

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