For two weeks, 14-year-old Jackson Fisher was plagued by headaches, double-vision, nausea and weight loss. His parents, Michelle and Patrick Fisher, weren’t sure what was wrong. But when Jackson came home one evening completely exhausted after lacrosse practice, they decided it was time to find out what was going on. The next day, they took Jackson to the emergency room.
What doctors found during that ER visit triggered a series of events the Fishers never could have anticipated and that eventually led the family to Mayo Clinic’s Proton Beam Therapy Program, where Jackson received treatment for a brain tumor.
“Every single person we’ve met at Mayo Clinic has been amazing, and we feel like we were meant to meet them,” says Michelle. “His doctors told us they were going to fight for Jackson. They’ve been forthcoming and explained things simply and honestly. I never second guessed his care. Being at Mayo Clinic has been the most positive experience of our lives.”
When Jackson first went to the ER in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, doctors there ordered a CT scan. The scan revealed a large mass in his brain. Due to the severity of his condition, Jackson was immediately flown via air ambulance to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The next day he had surgery to relieve pressure in his brain. His care team also ordered a biopsy of the tumor to find out if it was cancer.
“We told his neurosurgeon, Dr. Daniels [David Daniels, M.D., Ph.D.], and oncologist, Dr. Rao [Amulya Nageswara Rao, M.B.B.S.], ‘Whatever you need to do, do it,’” Michelle and Patrick say. “It’s Mayo Clinic. We brought him to the experts to help him.”
The morning after surgery, Jackson was able to get up and walk. A day after that, he and his family went back home. But his medical odyssey was far from over. Based on the biopsy results, Jackson was diagnosed with a mixed germ cell tumor that had both cancerous and noncancerous cells.
“His doctors were happy about the diagnosis and told us they have a lot of experience with the tumor type, which responds well to chemotherapy,” says Michelle.
Because not all of the cancer could be removed with surgery, Jackson had 18 weeks of chemotherapy, first at Mayo Clinic and then at his hometown hospital. Although the chemotherapy was effective, Jackson’s Mayo Clinic doctors wanted to further reduce the tumor size.
Ideally, they would have operated on it, but the tumor location made surgery too risky. So the family met with Nadia Laack, M.D., a radiation oncologist, who recommended proton beam therapy, a highly targeted type of radiation therapy. Jackson completed seven weeks of proton beam therapy of his spine and brain, a treatment that became available at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in June 2015.
“How’d we get so lucky?” asks Michelle. “Proton beam therapy was available at Mayo just in time for my child. Otherwise, we’d have had to relocate across the country, which would have been a huge stress. We were able to drive the three hours home on weekends during his treatment.”
Jackson, a high school freshman, Skyped with school during his treatment and returned to classes when it was over. Now he’s excited to be back to his normal life, playing lacrosse and basketball, hanging out with friends, and spending time with his brother and his pets.
“Jackson has a life-threatening brain tumor, but other than his hair loss, you wouldn’t know he has cancer,” says Michelle. “We’re extremely fortunate that we could go to Mayo Clinic, and we will forever be indebted to his doctors and everyone else who cared for him.”
Even though Jackson has finished his treatment at Mayo Clinic, the Fisher family’s ties to Mayo Clinic remain strong.
“We’re really going to miss Randy McKeeman, the child-life specialist, and Nancy Heinzelman, the patient experience coordinator, in the Proton Beam Therapy Program,” says Michelle. “We instantly bonded with them. They’re so genuine and charismatic and truly are exactly where they should be to help children through this process. We’ll go back to visit even when we don’t have to because we made fast friends and will miss so many people.”